Personal injury cases cover a myriad of factual situations. They involve injuries sustained in a commonplace road traffic accident or accidents abroad; injuries caused by animals or workplace accidents; occupational stress or non-recent sexual abuse.
Clinical negligence cases involve claims against medical professionals, such as doctors in NHS or private hospitals, GPs or dentists, and medical treatment in a range of locations including prisons, care homes and psychiatric facilities. There is also a crossover between these two areas where an unfortunate individual has suffered personal injuries followed by negligent treatment at hospital.
What do personal injury and clinical negligence work involve at the Bar?
Personal injury work is a staple in the early years of practice, particularly fast-track, one-day road traffic accident claims. Trials increase in length with factual and legal complexity. Clinical negligence claims require a consideration of medical as well as legal causation. In both areas the duration of litigation can be dependent on a claimant’s current health or age – sometimes you need to wait for the outcome of a medical procedure or until a claimant is old enough for damage to be assessed.
Personal injury cases at the junior end tend to be heard in the county courts, while higher value cases and those for clinical negligence may be heard in the High Court.
Hours across the Bar are long. You have to be disciplined and these cases often involve wading through medical records and expert reports. On the positive side, being self-employed means that you can take time out when your diary allows it.
One of the best aspects of these areas of practice is being involved in cases that provide life-changing compensation to individuals who have suffered severe injuries. For example, obtaining access to single-storey accommodation for a child with cerebral palsy or cutting-edge prosthetics for an amputee who has previously been reliant on a wheelchair.
These cases can be emotionally difficult, especially where a person has died or is likely to die during the course of the litigation.
What should students know about personal injury and clinical negligence law?
Some cases attract media attention. In my experience victims of serious injury, and their families, often do not want media attention. In some cases, the media can be a useful tool for tracing other individuals who have been treated by a negligent surgeon, exposed to asbestos or suffered sexual abuse during childhood.
In relation to high-profile cases in these areas, one of the most significant recent personal injury cases, Knauer v. Ministry of Justice, reached the Supreme Court on a technical issue about when financial losses are calculated in a fatal accident case. The Supreme Court reversed an earlier illogical and unfair decision from the 1970s.
In clinical negligence, another Supreme Court case, Montgomery v. Lanarkshire Health Board emphasised the rights of patients to determine their own treatment in a case concerning informed consent.
Are personal injury and clinical negligence work recession-proof?
There are frequent attacks on funding for cases. The Jackson reforms, and the recent consultation on whiplash and personal injury funding, remain matters of concern for the profession. There is also currently a focus on the high levels of legal costs as a result of claims brought against the NHS.
What can you expect as a pupil in personal injury and clinical negligence law?
During pupillage tasks will likely include drafting medical chronologies and pleadings, attending conferences with medical experts and round table meetings for settlement negotiations.
In the first six months the focus is on observation. In the second six months pupils are instructed on their own cases. Court hearings at this stage are normally for infant approval hearings, case management conferences or straightforward trials. In particular, infant approval hearings are great cases to find your feet as the child claimants come to court and judges tend to be in a good mood.
Types of law practised by personal injury and clinical negligence barristers
Useful traits for personal injury and clinical negligence barristers
- Empathy and emotional resilience
- The ability to process large volumes of information in a short time
- A strong grasp of maths for calculating complex schedules of losses
TAMAR BURTON is a barrister at CLOISTERS CHAMBERS specialising in clinical negligence, personal injury and employment law. She graduated with a degree in history from the University of York in 2009 and a masters from the London School of Economics. She was called to the Bar in 2012. Prior to the Bar, Tamar worked as a litigation executive at the law firm Slater & Gordon.