Mesothelioma sufferers will be encouraged to hear the recent good news that the government have abandoned their plan to destroy the records of all dissolved companies after 6 years. It’s estimated that more than 2.5 million public records are kept at Companies House where the history and details of every UK company, its directors, secretaries and accountants may be accessed.

When the decision to pursue a mesothelioma claim for occupational exposure to asbestos is taken, the next task is to try and track down a former employer and / or their insurer. It is crucial to show when and where it was possible that the victim inhaled the fibre dust. A further consideration is how much an exposure at a specific company contributed towards the development of the claimant’s mesothelioma of the lung linings or an asbestosis disease of the lung tissue itself.

It can usually take up to 30 to 40 years from the initial period when exposure is believed to have occurred to when the first asbestosis symptoms appear. Can a former employer be found after all this time? Does the company still even exist? In many cases, time may also be running out if the cancer has spread to a very late stage and the victim may only have months or even weeks to live following a confirmed diagnosis.

Any delay can all add to the distress of a victim and their family

An asbestosis lawyer needs to quickly compile a victim’s comprehensive employment record to present as strong evidence that exposure occurred at a one or more particular workplaces. Any delay in tracing former employers and insurers, plus obtaining employment records can all add to the distress of a victim and their close family.

One of the first steps in the search process is likely to involve making an application to Companies House to obtain the relevant information. Even if the claimant’s former employers were no longer in business and the company dissolved, records would still be retained for 20 years.

While in some cases 20 years may still not be a long enough period of time, the government proposal – made public in August 2016 – to reduce the retention time to 6 years, was likely to have created further difficulties for the majority of claimants. Vital names and addresses of employers and their insurers would be permanently lost, causing even further delays.

Directors who no longer want to be associated with their companies

The idea that the time limit can be reduced appears largely to be the result of “representations from former directors who no longer want to be associated with their dissolved companies”. They refer to the Data Protection Act 1998, which does not provide a date, by which, personal records should be destroyed. The Act simply states that authorities should not hold personal information “for longer than necessary” while the reference to a 6 year limit can be found in the Insolvency Act 1986 (IA), and the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 (SBEEA).

However, the drive to make the change seems to have arisen after June 2015, when the general public gained free access to the records at Companies House for the first time. As a result, the number of searches suddenly mushroomed to around 2 million per day, which put their 50 year old storage system under severe pressure.

While more recent records are stored digitally, many of the older company records are held on microfiche – tiny “micro” photographs of documents on sheet film – an obsolete technology dating back to the 1960s, and only accessible on machines at HMRC’s Newcastle headquarters.

Not all the information may be present on the records

It is, of course, welcome news that the government has scrapped its plan to destroy company records after just 6 years. However, there is still the issue of the considerable time delays in receiving the requested records, which can cause further frustration to victims and their families. It can now take 14 months or more to receive a copy of a claimant’s work history. While mesothelioma claims are given priority by HMRC, it seems that this may only apply to families of living claimants.

When the records do finally arrive, not all the information may be present. Following representations from company directors, a full date of birth is no longer given and a director’s usual residential address is only be placed on public record if used as a registered office or service address. The information will now only appear on a restricted private register.

Sadly, the vital need for specialist asbestos solicitors to gain prompt access to detailed company records on behalf of claimants is not going away any time soon. More than 2,500 people now lose their lives to mesothelioma every year – up by more than 10 per cent in 5 years – according to the latest available figures from Health & Safety Executive, Annual Report, 2014.

In some historical cases, victims or family members will also need to call upon former work colleagues to help by giving witness accounts of how asbestos affected workplace conditions at the time.