Negligence specialists by close association

The mushrooming of professional negligence work has been reflected in the growth of the Professional Negligence Bar Association. With fewer than 30 members when it started in October 1990, it now has more than 550.

Coincidentally, the secretary Andrew Goodman and chair Robin de Wilde QC of the association are both in the same set at 199 Strand. Goodman says one of the reasons for starting the association was to ensure the profession was aware that there is a distinct specialist professional negligence Bar.

He adds: “More importantly, the association also focuses on the continuing education aspects, and we run intensive seminars and lectures which are both innovative and useful as we have access to judges – the association president is the Lord Chief Justice and the association also has a strong working relationship with the Master of the Rolls – as well as counsel who have appeared in the ground-breaking cases.”

One recent innovation has been the introduction of an advanced specialist pupillage pilot scheme which was launched in October 1995 (see box).

The association is open to counsel who act for both plaintiffs and defendants; this is in contrast to, for example, Action for Victims of Medical Accidents group and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.

Within the association there are also informal sub-divisions. About 200 barrister members are primarily medical negligence specialists, and the remainder are divided into legal – acting for both solicitors and barristers – accountants, and disciplines in the construction field, such as architects, surveyors and engineers. The membership is also spread across the spectrum of common law practitioners and the more specialised chancery sets.

There are about 120 members in the provinces. David Wilby, of St Paul's House in Leeds, and Christopher Limb, of Young Street Chambers in Manchester, are involved in promoting the specialist Bar in the provinces and there is the nucleus of a group in Bristol for the South West.

Goodman believes the area of professional negligence is “one of the fastest developing areas of practice, outside of insolvency, and there have been more developments in court practice because of professional negligence cases which have an effect on court procedures, than in other areas.”

He adds: “In the area of limitation, for instance, many cases only come to light after a considerable period has passed, and lawyers in this area are pushing the boundaries of statutory construction to their limits.”

The area of professional negligence is also relevant to law reform, overlapping with Lord Woolf's proposals on fast-track and multi-party actions, and extending alternative dispute resolution to such cases, of interest to one of the main clients in such cases – the insurers.

Goodman says: “It is not uncommon to have cases where the plaintiff is suing a solicitor for not suing the original solicitor, and so on in a long chain, which gets very complicated. This is a whole new ball game for any professional person.”

Specialist pupillage scheme

Mark Mullins of 4 Brick Court is one of the five 'advanced specialist pupils'. The pilot scheme focuses on medical negligence, and his pupil master is Duncan Pratt, of George Carman QC's New Court Chambers.

The scheme started last October and provides an opportunity for junior members of the association (under seven years call, but at least three years call) to gain experience in that area. There are currently five 'advanced pupils' with five 'advanced pupil masters', all at different sets.

Mullins explains: “It is not quite the same as a traditional pupillage where the pupil sticks with the pupil master all the time – in fact, it is often difficult to co-ordinate our diaries.”

As he was called in 1988, the pupillage involves discussing sets of papers with the master, doing preparation or drafting pleadings. He has already been involved in three cases, including a consultation with a silk on structured settlement – which only occurs in substantial cases.

With experience in personal injury, inquest and mental health work, he considers that a period of up to seven years call is the ideal time to develop a specialism. Although advanced pupillage is still in its formative stages – the first pupillages, which will normally be for six weeks and need not be continuous, should be completed by October this year.

The Bar can be a difficult profession in which to switch from one area of practice to another, and the advanced pupillage is a practical way of continuing to practise in one area and gain hands-on practical experience in another, with an established specialist in the field.

Mullins adds that with organisations such as the Action for Victims of Medical Accidents and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the scheme “to develop and share skills between the junior and senior counsel is in the best spirit of the Bar. It is in everyone's interest that it expands the pool of knowledge and expertise, and that the Bar provides the best service.”