Professional negligence

Professional negligence

Imran Benson

Hailsham Chambers

University: University of Bristol

Degree: Law

Barristers involved in this field deal with claims against professionals such as architects, accountants, solicitors and financial advisers who have allegedly failed to provide services to the level of care and skill which a member of that profession would be expected to demonstrate. Clinical negligence is a type of professional liability that involves disputes between patients and healthcare providers (usually doctors), centring on quality of care. Defendant professionals will usually have indemnity insurance against such claims.

Imran Benson graduated from university with an ongoing passion for law, but was unsure about quite what he wanted to do next. “I wasn’t clear enough about the differences between the barrister and solicitor paths, so I embarked on a lot of research,” he recalls. “The sound of life at the Bar really interested me, so I applied for a couple of mini-pupillages for a first-hand insight into what being a barrister would be like. I liked the advocacy and the idea of being self-employed, building up my own practice and earning my own money. I thought that if I was going to be working long hours, including some weekends, I might as well be doing it for myself rather than for a firm’s partners.”

Imran completed pupillage at Hailsham Chambers, where he is now an experienced litigator specialising in professional liability, as well as other forms of commercial and insurance litigation. “Hailsham is very well known for its strong professional negligence practice, among other areas, so I was introduced to this kind of work early on in my career,” he explains. “I do a lot of work for insurers, solicitors, accountants and property professionals, and also act for clients of those professionals – banks, businesses and individuals. In a typical professional negligence case, an individual or business will feel that it has been let down by a professional in some way, which will prompt it to launch a claim against that professional. The professional will then contact his or her insurer, who will instruct a solicitor, who will then instruct me to provide legal representation to defend the professional against the claim being brought against them.”

However, the seriousness of such disputes does not necessarily mean that they always go to court. “Trials are relatively few and far between – I tend to do four or five a year,” explains Imran. “I also attend mediations and do quite a lot of applications and case management conferences, but much of my time is spent on advisory work and pleadings.”

Serious allegations

Part of this area’s appeal is the chance to work with upstanding professional people for whom the outcome of a case will make a significant difference. “The clients I act for are facing – for them – serious allegations,” Imran points out. “Commercial disputes often have a human context. Usually the client will be an experienced professional person who has been told that they have made a serious mistake which has caused someone else loss. Occasionally my client might be dishonest, but most of the time I’m representing people who take their jobs very seriously and are very concerned about the allegation – obviously, if they are named as negligent in a judgment, it will be very difficult for them to continue their careers in the future.”

Cases worth £50-60 million involving some of the biggest companies out there have landed on Imran’s desk, but one of the highlights of his career so far was much smaller, at least in financial terms: “The case concerned a person who was trying to invest in property and had paid his life savings, around £300,000, to a law firm in order to do this. However, his co-investor took that money out of the firm and stole it, so he was suing the firm on the grounds that it should have had better safeguards in place to prevent such a thing happening. The case went to court and I ended up cross-examining one of the partners of the firm, where I had to make serious allegations about his honesty. That was very nerve wracking, but was also very worthwhile – we won in the end and got every penny back for the client. It was very rewarding to help that individual in a serious way, as losing that money would have had a profoundly negative impact on his life.”

“Commercial disputes often have a human context. Usually the client will be an experienced professional person who has been told that they have made a serious mistake which has caused someone else loss.”

Rewarding cases and a fully independent lifestyle are key aspects of the Bar’s appeal, but the job isn’t without its pressures, too. “I’m one of the many barristers who worries that I might run out of work one day. There is always a nervousness and anxiety around that which I don’t particularly enjoy,” Imran admits. “It would be great to have cases lined up for the next five years so I wouldn’t need to think about it, but that is not how the Bar works and it’s also part of the fun. I’m always thinking about where my next case is going to come from.”

Changes ahead

Appraising the wider outlook for the Bar, Imran identifies several issues of which anyone considering a career as a barrister should be aware. “In the civil world, the government are thinking about introducing online courts, which may reduce the amount of work available for junior barristers. In addition fixed fees, if they come in, will also make it harder for junior barristers to earn a living. Nonetheless, I think if you are hard-working, clever and ambitious, you can still make a very respectable life at the Bar.”

To succeed, Imran believes that every good barrister must have three key qualities: “Firstly, you need the ability and willingness to work really hard. Secondly, you must be an excellent communicator. And finally, while the ability to express yourself clearly is essential, it is also equally important to be a good listener – you need to be able to take in what your clients are telling you to put together a good case.”

And for those seeking pupillage, Imran has this advice: “Think about the sets you would like to work at and look at the profiles of the junior tenants on their websites. You will then be able to see what they have done and compare yourself accordingly to see if that set is appropriate – if you are on a par with those sorts of people in terms of academic and wider achievement, it will be well worth applying.”

Finally, Imran again emphasises that being a barrister is about much more than having a sound knowledge and interpretation of the law. “It’s also good to have broader interests – in businesses and the markets you might be working in, for example,” he observes. “You need to inspire confidence in your clients and make them want to give you work, so wider knowledge and good interpersonal skills are just as important as legal acumen.”