First-Person Accounts Magazine

Standing on the Pipes

Looking back at a career in a peculiar branch of the law.

If my life had gone to plan I’d have been on a picket line. Because I really wanted to be a criminal barrister. So I did a law degree, then the year of bar school, and applied for the year of ‘pupillage’ (like an apprenticeship) at a chambers that said they specialised in crime. That’s where it went wrong. Half an hour in, the interview panel asked the predictable question: ‘Why here?’ When I finished, there was awkwardness. ‘Ah,’ said the Head of Chambers, ‘crime’. He coughed. ‘Our brochure is rather out of date. We now do 95% insurance-­related litigation.’ 

By then I’d taken to the people on the panel. Right, I thought, I’ll do my first six months of pupillage with them and then my second six at the decent criminal set who’d also made an offer, then go on to be the World’s Greatest Criminal Barrister there. But that never happened.

Friends, family and people you meet at parties can show an interest in what you do until you use the word ‘insurance’ and their eyes glaze over. So in short: many people who might do you harm if they mess up, like drivers, employers, doctors, companies, homeowners and drug companies, take out insurance in case you sue them as a result. Say you’re injured by a careless driver and lose earnings. If you sue the driver, their insurance company will defend the claim and try to defeat it outright (‘It was your own fault!’) or minimise the payout. More than 90% of cases settle, but if they do come to court, the insurance company will hire a barrister for the fight. And that’s what I did.

As you can imagine, the subject matter of cases was sometimes really boring. In my pupillage I had to help with one building dispute where surveyors, architects, engineers, builders and suppliers were pointing fingers at each other over a horribly delayed construction project. I remember that on that case Item 157 was, ‘snots of cement on the windowsills’. I vowed never to do such work again.

But I did find an affinity with work that centred on people. Once, I had to defend a lorry driver who had ‘failed to accord precedence to a foot passenger’ at a pelican crossing. This was a criminal charge but the defence was funded by the driver’s insurers, mindful of a likely personal injury claim arising. My guy hadn’t actually hit the wheelchair user who had been trying to cross; she’d (allegedly) had to pull up short as he barrelled through. The witness evidence being unhelpful, I took the point that the wheelchair user should not in law be regarded as a ‘foot passenger’ as her feet never touched the ground. To the hatchet-faced magistrate’s evident irritation, the prosecution agreed to drop the case. My pupil-master went out and bought me a bar of chocolate, ‘for demonstrating conclusively that disabled people have less rights than others’.

People didn’t like that I earned my living representing insurance companies. I learned not to lead with it at dinner parties. Even other barristers could be superior. I shared a taxi to court with one once who asked me how I slept at night. He was on his way to do a plea in mitigation for a rapist.

The cab rank rule meant you couldn’t pick your clients. Everyone should have representation, then you leave it to the court to decide. But the life does give you a few ‘How did I get here?’ moments. I had cases where I had to cross-examine people who were dying of an asbestos-induced cancer, mesothelioma. Their life expectancy is so short that you have to go to their house for the cross examination, on camera, surrounded by their relatives, who make it worse by giving you tea. Typically, the dying claimant sits in his favourite chair with oxygen tubes up his nose. Once I noticed, from the sofa next to the claimant, that the pauses before the answers were getting longer and longer and eventually his eyes closed. I suggested a short break might be in order, and my opponent said, ‘Yes, William, and I can’t help noticing that you’re standing on his airpipe.’

But I noticed that with concern over ‘compensation culture’, people have been less hostile, indeed sometimes pleased to hear of some claims being repulsed. There was the couple who claimed damages for getting sunburned on holiday. Or the guy who fell off the roof of my client’s business premises. He’d chatted a girl up in a pub and, walking her home, suggested a romantic look at the stars. Having taken a fire escape up to the roof, he said he’d be back in a moment. He went to the edge for a piss but fell off, and later sued my client on the basis that there was no warning about the absence of railings.

And so, from wanting to defend criminals, I came to be a person who enjoyed it when defeating a claim for a life ruined by post-traumatic stress disorder, and it is that case I look back on most fondly. To explain, a lorry driver claimed he could never drive HGVs again after being trapped in a smoking car that had just been repaired by my client’s garage. We showed the claimant had staged the incident completely, but my favourite bit was on his loss of earnings claim. 

We found a benefits form after the ‘accident’ where he wrote that his recent work had been ‘HGV driving’. In court he said the form was misleading: he had been ‘assessing’ other HGV drivers, not driving himself. I asked him why, if he had been assessing other drivers, not driving, he hadn’t put ‘assessing’ on the form. He fidgeted for a moment, thinking. Eventually, he had it: ‘Because I couldn’t spell “assessing”.’

Even after I’ve retired, I still get some grief for having worked for insurance companies. It’s easier to roll with it, and the truth is I’m comfortable with it. 

When I was on the way to doing crime, I remember an impressive practitioner taking us students through a case where he had been defending an alleged child abuser, apparently a very unattractive individual. If he’d had to judge him, it would have been poorly. But, he said, walking on eggshells, he cross-examined the alleged victim who, in the end, admitted that it had all been lies. He said that was his proudest day in court and I understood. The short point is that court isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

The bigger point is that everyone should be able to have competent legal representation and then you have a judge or jury to decide who’s right. That’s pretty fundamental to the way we live our lives. 

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