The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) is slightly unusual subject for Lawyer 2B to cover, as it is not a law firm and Deborah Evans, its chief executive, is not a lawyer.
However, armed with an MBA from Nottingham Trent University, she has over 20 years’ experience of management roles in the legal sector and is keen to make sure that victims’ interests are at the forefront of APIL’s activities. Evans says: “APIL fights for the rights of injured people, putting their needs ahead of lawyers’. We have 4,500 lawyer members and strive to make sure they are the best they can be.”
I met Evans on the day the Hillsborough inquests opened and APIL is currently campaigning to reform the law on psychiatric harm that came out of the 1989 stadium disaster. Evans explains that the present regime is “quite restrictive and means secondary victims could only claim in very specific circumstance. We seek to modernise the law.”
She wants the existing presumption of the existence of a bond of ‘close love and affection’ between spouses and between parents and children to be extended to grandparents and siblings to recognise the nature of modern relationships. She also wants the concept of psychiatric harm to be considered in relation to distressing events, not just (as is currently the case) sudden shocking ones – extending it to, for example, a mother watching her child dying slowly in hospital.
The current law’s other requirement of proximity – that a claimant needs to be standing next to the shocking event – “is out of date in the modern media era of Skype, Twitter and so on,” Evans says. “A man whose daughter dies in a road accident which he hadn’t witnessed would nonetheless be traumatised and scarred immensely and, if this occurs at the hands of someone negligent, someone needs to be held responsible.” Evans notes that the Hillsborough inquests aren’t expected to come out with anything that will affect the future – inquests are retrospective and the law is prospective – but maintains the two are linked. APIL recently hosted an event at Westminster on the subject and over 20 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion proposing changes to the law on psychiatric harm.
What of the government’s efforts to cut costs in the legal system, and specifically the Jackson reforms one year on from their introduction? Evans says of Jackson that it’s “still early, but we are seeing some problem areas. Case management and costs budgeting is adding to the length of cases – up to seven months due to delays in judges doing costs budgeting work.”
We were talking after the Court of Appeal’s ruling in Mitchell v News Group ( EWCA Civ 1526) had seen a hard line taken against the applicant for failing to file a costs budget on time. Evans says that this case “created a climate of fear around litigation – with cases being thrown out on minor technicalities”.
She continues: “We are getting inconsistent decisions across courts and lawyers need clarity and consistency. Sanctions are neither proportionate nor predictable and a lack of proportionality means some genuinely vulnerable claimants, such as those afflicted by dementia, are suffering.”
The underlying impetus behind Jackson appears to be the drive to stamp out a so-called ‘compensation culture’ whereby victims with trivial losses can go to court and win large damages from public sector bodies at the taxpayers’ expense. Evans is adamant that “several reports, for example Lord Young’s, dismissed the existence of a compensation culture but the idea of one is still being fuelled by the media. This can be negative – attaching a stigma to making a claim – and people may be put off making genuine claims.”
Nonetheless, Evans acknowledges that abuse still occurs in the industry with a minority of practitioners taking a “casual approach to fraud and exaggeration.” Evans emphasises that APIL “works with government with a view to stamp out fraud and ensure only the genuinely injured are compensated” and APIL also “offers top-notch competency-based accreditation schemes and training to help lawyers.”
Evans says PI lawyers fulfil a vital need as “the fear of being sued makes people raise their standards in the first place and this prevents accidents and saves lives. We now have some of the highest Health & Safety standards in the world and we fear reforms may unpick this – for example, the Enterprise Act removed the strict liability principle.” She also points out that prevention is better than cure and “the litigation process provides feedback that should prevent similar incidents happening again.”
These controversies aside, Evans maintains that personal injury remains an attractive career path for aspiring lawyers. “PI is an absolutely fascinating area for lawyers to work in.” she says. “There is the real satisfaction of helping someone injured get their lives back on track by winning them compensation and securing money for rehabilitation and future care.”
Evans also points out the variety of work in the sector: “Every case is different, everybody has different needs and lawyers need to pay particular attention to the client. The opportunity is there to be involved in cases from small losses to catastrophic injuries and also to specialise in, for example, individual diseases.”
Evans advises would-be PI lawyers to “get as much experience in the field as possible, be it work experience or paralegal work. Also, any experience working with clients/customers will be valuable and good interpersonal relationships are as important as technical know-how”.
Notwithstanding the media’s perpetuation of the compensation culture stereotype, she also recommends that students “read the press. Virtually every day there are stories about injuries at work or elsewhere and legal arguments are developed in the press and you need to be absolutely up to date with the law and cases.”
Andrew Hubback is a GDL student at Nottingham Law School