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Does ICBC still need a hefty legal department to beat the claims backlog?

Documents obtained via FOI show the insurer spent $26 million on legal services department salaries between April 2020 and March 2021.
Despite a modest reduction, watchdog says ICBC still needs hefty legal department to battle backlog.

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia spent $23.98 million on salaries and expenses for claims lawyers, paralegals and assistants in the fiscal year ended March 31, a drop of $2.01 million from the first year of the pandemic. 

Documents obtained via freedom of information from the public-owned basic auto insurance monopoly showed there were 343 people employed in the claims legal services department between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021 at a cost of $25.99 million. Last year, the number employed dropped to 299. 

Despite that, the top 10 highest-paid senior managers received pay raises, four of them in the double-digits.

Director of claims programs and strategies Christopher Ryan topped the pay parade at $224,386 in salary. He filed only $46.39 in expense claims. Director of claims and legal services Robert Warner’s salary was $210,538, followed by the manager of claims legal services knowledge management, Robert McCullough. His $194,672 salary was a whopping 24% more than the previous year.

“Any increases in salary for individual employees can be tied directly to promotions and performance-based increases,” said ICBC spokesman Brent Shearer.

Shearer said ICBC is not alone with challenges to attract and retain employees in a tight labour market, but changes in staffing levels were not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Where possible, we moved to a virtual working environment and continued operating business as usual,” he said. “That said, our expenses during the pandemic went down as a result of more litigation activities being conducted virtually rather than in-person.”

Budget and staffing numbers for the current fiscal year are comparable with the last, he said.

The department’s 2021 organization chart covers 24 pages, while 2022’s totals 21 pages. 

The total cost of claims services was $395.09 million through March 31, 2021, down from $406.47 million in 2020.

Richard McCandless, a retired senior B.C. government bureaucrat who analyzes performance of Crown corporations, said ICBC continues to grapple with a multiyear backlog of claims, even after changing its business model in May 2021.

“They're not talking about no-fault resulting in a significant drop in their claims staffing and I interpret that to mean that they're trying to keep the people there to to reduce the backlog of claims, because we've got quite a buildup of claims pending,” McCandless said.

In an April analysis, McCandless noted the decline in settled property damage claims in 2020-2021 reflected the reduction in claims due to COVID-19. But the increase in settled injury claims last year may reflect the lower intake of new claims which allowed ICBC staff to focus on the pending claims.

ICBC is also exploring alternative means to reduce the backlog, such as the 25-case pilot project through the Vancouver International Arbitration Centre for disputes valued at no more than $200,000. 

“In their presentation to the Utilities Commission, they weren't really forecasting any kind of major reduction in the claims business — both staffing and other operations,” McCandless said. “I think they're taking the opportunity to go after the backlog.”

In the most-recent fiscal year, $7,040.08 was the highest expense tab for one employee. Otherwise, expenses in the department averaged $1,106.44. A total of 141 employees, mostly paralegals and legal assistants, had no expense claims for the year. In 2020-2021, the highest was $11,740.98. But the department-wide average was $845.16 and 148 staff had no expenses charged. 

In 2021, there were  47 vacancies, including 18 legal assistant litigation jobs, seven in paralegal and six in the “Counsel IV” designation. At the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2022, 17 of the 37 vacancies were in legal assistant litigation and five in paralegal.