Vital evidence in a mesothelioma claim is obtained from several key sources, including the victim’s testimony itself. A court expects to not only hear first-hand accounts of where and when exposure to asbestos occurred but also refer to the claimant’s actual medical and employment records.

But what happens if an employee’s work history is delayed for so long that the claimant passes away before it can be presented as evidence?

In one recent tragic case, the widow of an 83-year-old mesothelioma victim who died just a few months following a confirmed diagnosis was told by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that it would take 18 months to produce the work records of her late husband. As might be expected, the wife strongly believes that her late husband’s mesothelioma cancer was caused by exposure to asbestos during a lifetime working as an insulation engineer.

Supporting evidence

Concern is increasingly being raised by asbestosis lawyers that HM Revenue and Customs is now taking more than 12 months to retrieve work records required as supporting evidence in mesothelioma compensation cases.

Tragically, life expectancy for a mesothelioma victim from a doctor’s confirmed diagnosis is often less than a year. A widow and close family relatives are then left with the task of urgently appealing for former work colleagues to provide witness accounts of working conditions and the absence of protection against the presence of the deadly fibre dust.

At the height of asbestos use as insulation and fireproofing during the mid 1960s, around 170,000 tons of asbestos was imported each year. Millions of men employed across Britain’s engineering, manufacturing and construction industries, were exposed almost every day to asbestos fibre dust without any form of protective equipment or health and safety information.

Pinpointing a victim’s exact period of time in a particular workplace where exposure to asbestos was likely to have occurred – and which would increase the probability of developing an asbestosis disease – is always crucial when former employers dispute the extent of contributory liability.

Race against time

In an overwhelming number of cases, the wife of the deceased victim will recount her husband’s stories of regularly working in a boiler room, for example, where the air was filled with “clouds of dust” caused by the disturbance to asbestos linings fallen from the pipework. Insulation engineers or maintenance staff would simply replace the disintegrating asbestos linings by mixing the fibre with plaster or cement in a bucket and resurface the outside of the hot water pipes by hand or cut asbestos boards to size when fixing a ceiling or wall cavity.

Mesothelioma claimants and their families are invariably in a race against time to see an early settlement. While a call goes out for former work colleagues to provide witness statements of work conditions, a lawyer will also immediately begin searches for former employers and insurers, and call for all medical and work records to track down exactly where and when asbestos exposure occurred.

The additional distress caused to a family if there are perceived unnecessary delays in the process can be enormous. The victim may only survive a further 2 to 4 months, and in some cases, just a few weeks. It is all the more devastating to hear that there is to be a lengthy delay of between a year and 18 months or maybe more because vital work records are held by HMRC only on microfiche – an obsolete method of data storage from more than thirty years ago.

No “short-term” improvement

It was recently reported that HMRC held employment records in sheet film containing tiny “micro” photographs of documents up until 1997 when the system was transferred to digital formats. While the number of applications for employment records has tripled from 40,000 a year to 120,000 over the past five years there are said to be just 36 microfiche machines in working order to carry out the time-consuming searches.

A spokesman at HMRC said it was “working very closely” with the Ministry of Justice and others on ways both to improve the service and “reduce demand for our records” but cautions not to expect any “short-term leap” in improvement. The Tax office has also said that it “prioritises” requests to provide a 10 day turnaround in mesothelioma cases and serious life-threatening conditions, but it seems to only apply for the families of living claimants.

The wife of the deceased insulation engineer says she knew all the companies where her late husband was employed, the approximate dates from the 1950s right up to his retirement, and even supplied HMRC with a detailed history.

Nevertheless, it appears that the backlog to clear outstanding requests is now over 12 months at least, adding intolerable distress to thousands of elderly wives and husbands, made to wait and innocently suffer once again as a result of historic asbestos exposure.