Conference speakers take a big bite out Apil

As the opening of a conference, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers president Caroline Harmer's production was something of a surprise.

It featured a journalist, a client and a consumer representative getting up and, in effect, telling a stony-faced gathering of 350 Apil members what an ethically dubious bunch they were.

“Of all areas of law, personal injury is perhaps most ripe for criticism,” said National Consumer Council policy officer Marlene Winfield. “Cases take far too long. Costs are out of all proportion to damages in too many cases. Cases that settle, settle too late in the day. These things put your reputation at risk.”

Winfield cited previous research that a quarter of personal injury victims were dissatisfied with the legal help available and that four out of 10 had seen their case take longer than two years.

Other speakers attacked Apil in a similar vein. Independent journalist Ian Burrell warned delegates of the risk of following in the footsteps of their unpopular and litigation-happy US colleagues.

When George Bush verbally lashed lawyers, the attack was more popular than his military strike on Saddam Hussein, Burrell pointed out.

The applause that followed each speaker was polite but restrained.

Then, like a Baptist preacher reviving the Apil congregation, Kerry Underwood, who operates his own small firm, took to the podium to proclaim he was proud to be a lawyer.

“I don't see a wild contradiction between being a caring professional and ambulance chaser in the broadest sense,” he said. “We have been too defensive for too long, we do a very valuable job.”

Far from draining the lifeblood from the community, he thundered, personal injury lawyers were taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

“It's punishment in the pocket that improves safety standards,” said Underwood. “Sophisticated legal systems equal safer communities.”

This received a rousing response from the conference delegates – and an aside from Winfield that Underwood's comments were “mind-blowingly shallow.”

Delegates were unimpressed with Winfield's attack on personal injury lawyers. There was little dissatisfaction over Harmer's decision to risk opening the conference with self-flagellation instead of professional back-patting.

Delegates said the debate was stimulating, though many felt it was pointless to try and get the man about to be run over in the street to like personal injury lawyers.

“It's very important that we are trusted by the public, but not essential,” remarked one delegate.

Apil clearly hopes its new 11-point code of practice will help build that trust, but many within the organisation seem resigned that litigation can't buy them love.