Professional negligence law: area of practice (barristers)
Professional negligence claims are brought against a wide range of professionals, most often on the grounds that they are said – generally by former clients – to have failed to act with the degree of reasonable skill and care expected of them. The professionals involved might be, for example, solicitors, barristers, accountants, financial advisers, surveyors, insurance brokers, architects, engineers, vets or doctors. It is usual, however, for barristers to specialise to some extent in certain professions.
Typical cases and clients
Professional negligence barristers might have ten or more cases ‘live’ at any one time, but can find themselves working almost exclusively on one major case for periods, particularly in the run up to trial. They will most commonly be instructed either by a former client of a professional wishing to bring a claim or by a professional who is facing such a claim (and his or her insurers).
Many professional negligence cases settle before reaching court. However, some cases are fought all the way to trial, which might take place a year or more after the proceedings are commenced. One of the most demanding aspects of a professional negligence trial for a barrister is cross-examining the other side’s expert witnesses – who will generally be highly experienced in their fields, which may be technical and/or rather esoteric. This requires a detailed understanding of the discipline involved in the case.
Professional negligence cases are tried in courts of all levels: many proceed in the High Court, but lower value cases are often heard in the county courts. Barristers typically spend a few weeks to a few months of the year actually in trial. Much of their time is spent in chambers preparing statements of case, giving advice and attending conferences – this field will not suit those who wish to be in court every day.
Barristers in this area can find themselves putting in long hours – particularly when court deadlines are looming, and in the run up to and during trials. However, the fact that practitioners are not in court every day gives some flexibility as to working hours and, with good time management, a good work/life balance is achievable.
There tends to be an upturn in the amount of professional negligence work available following periods of economic downturn. For example, an increase in claims against solicitors and valuers, particularly by lenders, is very common after a downturn in the property market. Similarly, falls in the stock market may lead to claims against financial and pensions advisers.
As a pupil
Pupillage focuses on developing the skills of drafting statements of case, advices and skeleton arguments. Pupils have the opportunity to observe their pupil supervisor conducting conferences and to watch him or her in court. There should be some opportunity in the second six months of pupillage for the pupil to do some of his or her own court work, such as attending directions hearings, reasonably straightforward applications or possibly small claims in the county court.
Types of law practised
Good professional negligence barristers have…
- The ability to marshal and analyse substantial volumes of material.
- The ability to grasp new technical concepts quickly.
- Commercial awareness and an eye for strategy.
EMILIE JONES is a barrister at FOUR NEW SQUARE. She graduated with a degree in law from the University of Oxford in 2003 and was called to the Bar in 2005.