Not a negligible legal practice

The Professional Negligence Bar Association was founded in 1990 by Robin Stewart QC and Rupert Jackson QC as a Bar association for those who wished to develop their skills in this area, whether acting for plaintiffs or defendants.

It now has some 570 members who do a range of work, the three largest categories of which are medical negligence, solicitors' negligence and surveyors'/valuers' negligence. There are other forms of negligence to be found in the greatly expanded textbook edited by Jackson and Powell, Professional Negligence.

It is interesting to note, however, that the number of bankers' negligence or barristers' negligence cases are still relatively small, whereas the rule changes and difficulties in the conveyancing market have greatly expanded the volume of solicitors' cases. Doctors and dentists continue to commit egregious errors; and they have still not learned from the experience in the US that, if you behave pleasantly to your patient, however negligent your conduct, then you tend not get sued.

We also continue to live under the misconception that the lawyers are penalising the doctors and dentists, whereas the Harvard Practice Review in 1989 demonstrated clearly that the ratio of bona fide claims to negligent acts is in the region of one good claim to every 50 to 60 negligent acts.

The truth of these figures is slowly seeping through and in an editorial in the Royal Society of Medicine's Journal in April 1996, the editor was shrewd enough to plainly state that: "This is not because medico legal activity is a conspicuous growth area in British medicine: contrary to the general perception, litigation is not a large item in National Health Service finances (under half the claims are for less than £10,000); and the increasing size and number of awards in hard-pressed specialities such as obstetrics reflect the cost of very long-term care that ideally should be funded from the public purse."

We keep our members involved through a series of lectures and seminars. In January about 110 barristers spent a whole Saturday discussing the complexities of solicitors' negligence, listening to and discussing papers by leading experts in the field.

We have held three Medical Negligence Weekends at an Oxford College with about 120 barristers attending lectures from leading medical specialists on various areas of difficulty. An expert on keyhole surgery will be long remembered for demonstrating an operation with model and video and then declaring that all of us present had a more detailed knowledge of the techniques necessary than many of the surgeons operating in the early 1990s.

We also operate a back-to-basics course for beginners on all the main negligence-related subjects, including insolvency and financial services. This has proved popular and runs over a series of evenings.

We have run workshops and seminars on items such as structured settlements and practical litigation techniques. In part, we are assisted not only by the judiciary, but also academics such as Professor Peter Jones of the Nottingham Law School. We have produced our own set of tables for the computation of damages – our publishers were delighted with the sales of the first edition and it is now to be an annual event.

The whole process is voluntary. No one has to earn points or is required to attend. It is the clearest demonstration that practising barristers are willing to participate in educational improvement without coercion of any sort. I fancy that the next generation will be even more professional than the present one. Sometimes, the members actually enjoy the process!