Head of the spinal injury team, Bolt Burdon Kemp
In 1993, aged 11, I underwent a scoliosis operation to correct the curvature of my spine. The operation did not quite go to plan and I became paralysed. I was fortunate enough to be able to bring a claim funded entirely by legal aid. My solicitor, Paul McNeil, was an immense support to my parents. The one issue I remember my parents and legal team discussing with me surrounded my potential loss of earnings and witness statement. At 15, when my claim was approved by a High Court judge, I wanted to be a film director or ‘something to do with languages’.
At 16 I was bundled into a cab every day for two weeks and sent up to Paul’s offices to do work experience in his clinical negligence team. I loved it. The penny dropped while in a conference with experts and a QC discussing quantum. I just knew I could do the job and make a difference to people. At 27, I qualified as a solicitor.
I undertook my training contract at Bindmans. There is much emphasis on academics to the point that anyone with less than a 2:1 is often not considered despite their practical skills. Bindmans saw past my 2:2 and focused on my potential and life experience. They gave me the grounding I would need to run catastrophic cases. This, combined with the first two years of being a solicitor and working with Caroline Klage on an £8.8m case, helped me develop all the skills I now utilise on a daily basis.
The hardest clients are those who have litigation friends. When it is you who is injured you know how much you feel able to compromise and are willing to negotiate. When you are representing a loved one who lacks capacity to make those life-changing decisions, compromise and negotiation can feel like you are letting the loved one down or not doing your best by them in terms of securing their future. Being able to guide and advise these families by securing strong settlements is crucial.
My most memorable highlight to date was obtaining a settlement for a client who developed a conversion disorder with bladder dysfunction. A conversion disorder is when the body has a physical response to a psychological injury. In this case, the conversion disorder manifested itself as paraplegia. My client had all the needs and difficulties of someone who had sustained a spinal cord injury. The difference was that the condition was psychological. For five years, the defendant maintained the claim was worth £20,000, tops. We settled for £2m.
The legal profession needs to reconsider whether it is right to deduct success fees from damages awarded to children and adults who lack capacity, rather than charge these, perhaps capped, fees to the defendant responsible for the injury. The importance of ringfencing damages from legal fee deductions is imperative. Particularly when, as catastrophic injury lawyers, we are all too aware that damages have to last a lifetime despite us being unable to forecast many known and unknown future expenses.