Friday, 10 May 2013

Thalidomide victims must not be forgotten

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting up with Michael Napier, who is well-known in the legal profession as the former senior partner of Irwin Mitchell. As well as being at the helm of Irwin Mitchell for 30 years, Michael has served the profession with distinction in a number of roles, including a stint as president of The Law Society. Today he continues to play a large part in the litigation sector, not least in his new appointment as Chairman of Harbour Litigation Funding Ltd.

Michael is as well placed as anyone to comment on the huge changes that the profession is undergoing at present. Our conversation ranged around a great deal of things, including the recent advent of the Jackson reforms as law in the form of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). And in chatting with Michael, another thorny topic was covered: the public image of personal injury lawyers.

Too often, personal injury lawyers are cast as mercenaries who are only interested in their own profit. This stereotype is trotted out by the media on a regular basis. In the same way, the media - and many politicians - would have us believe, as a society, that we are awash with spurious claims; that vast swaths of the population litigate at the drop of a hat, spurred on by avaricious lawyers.

Duty before profit

The truth is very different. My firm's motto is 'duty before profit'. We believe in our ethical and professional duty to serve our clients to the best of our ability. So, too, do the majority of personal injury lawyers. Frequently, indeed, personal injury lawyers help people to obtain redress in circumstances where corporate indifference or resistance might otherwise see them left uncompensated.

Michael reminded me of a good example of this. Thalidomide was manufactured in the 1950s and was sold from 1957 until 1962. Initially used as a sleeping pill, its use morphed into an apparent panacea for pregnant women suffering from the effects of morning sickness. Tragically, though, it caused many different forms of birth defect.

Thalidomide was withdrawn from sale in 1962 after the link between its use and deformities - including shortened limbs, blindness, brain damage, missing sexual organs and missing internal organs - was conclusively proved. But as if its victims had not suffered enough, the past 50 years have been a different kind of battleground.

As Thalidomide victim Guy Tweedy, from Harrogate, said last year: "Thalidomide was not an act of God. It was a man-made disaster. For seven months leading up to the drug being withdrawn, UK government officials had been given compelling evidence that it was responsible for a large number of babies being born with horrific birth defects ... For the last 50 years we have not only had to live with the devastating effects of Thalidomide, but we have had to fight every step of the way for compensation."

Here, personal injury lawyers have played a role. They have helped maintain pressure on the German manufacturer of the drug, Grünenthal - which only last year managed to issue a public apology to Thalidomide victims. Personal injury lawyers have assisted people in obtaining compensation for this tragedy. They've not thought of their profit but of doing their best to ameliorate the terrible misfortune suffered as a consequence of Thalidomide.

Campaigning must continue

Campaigning for Thalidomide victims must continue. Many remain alive today and they need care, consideration and decent provision for their futures. As such, I applaud the work of campaign groups such as Thalidomide UK and ShowYourHand, to which Michael, who is a trustee of The Thalidomide Trust, directed me. And looking back, by way of countering the clichés that abound about modern journalism as much as in the law, the excellent Sunday Times investigation into Thalidomide should be noted. Not only did it reveal that basic testing had not been properly carried out before the drug went on sale, it also helped increase compensation payable by the UK distributor from £3.25m to £32.5m.

Post-Leveson and the phone hacking scandal, journalism's standing is perhaps at its lowest. But rogue and corrupt journalists are the exception, not the norm. Most journalists want to report the facts of an event and serve the public.

So it is in personal injury law. The overwhelming majority of people in this sector work there because they want to help people.

Here's hoping that Thalidomide victims continue to receive all the help they need and deserve - and that the clichés are replaced by the truth.

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