To walk into the Glasgow city centre offices of Ross Harper, with its bilious purple-and-yellow corporate colour scheme, is to enter a factory for the processing of human misery. The noise level is positively industrial. Telephones ring, fingers clatter on keyboards, voices leak from behind the blondwood doors of client meeting rooms. A stream of people come and go, tension etched on their faces. And more often than not, the most unhappy are looking for Cameron Fyfe.
Fyfe is the public face of US-style litigation in the Scottish courts. Remember Nasreen Akmal, who had her Pakistani arranged marriage annulled under Scots law? Anne Craig, who successfully sued her boyfriend for passing on HIV? Margaret McTear, who’s suing Imperial Tobacco over the death of her husband Alfred? They’re all Cameron Fyfe cases. He’s handled oddball lawsuits as wacky as anything in Ally McBeal: the woman who sued a Milngavie pub after being bitten by a ferret which ran along the bar or the man who claimed to be Willie Whitelaw’s illegitimate son. But he also has a reputation for serious cases with far-reaching implications.
A couple of years back he represented more than 60 school students caught up in the SQA fiasco. Since Nasreen Akmal he has undone 50 arranged marriages. Currently on his books are 500 clients who say they were abused in children’s homes and schools run by the Catholic Church, 50 prisoners want to sue the government over slopping out and 50 parents who have discovered their dead babies’ organs were removed without consent. He’s not the only solicitor using human rights legislation to blaze a trail through Scottish law, but he has the highest profile.
Scotland has its fair share of flamboyant lawyers: politicians, Lothiarios, football fanatics, wits, men who make the law seem a branch of showbiz. The name Cameron Fyfe is so well known it amounts to a brand: check out his ad in the Yellow Pages. A Sunday newspaper recently named him the 40th most powerful person in Scotland. But the odd thing is that, for all this, the personality isn’t on sale. His dazzling white shirt and matching smile look great on TV, but in person he’s curiously feline, elusive. More like a parliamentary private secretary or personal assistant to the chairman of a major public company: a highly capable adjutant, not the main man. But then, keeping people guessing is part of his job.
One third of his workload is medical negligence cases; another third is pursuing compensation for people involved in accidents: car crashes, pavement potholes, accidents at work. It’s the final third which quickens his pulse and grabs the headlines: "Odds and ends, nothing too routine." Residents in Leith who want to sue over the pong from a sewage works. Fish farm employees who believe they have been contaminated by a spray at their workplace. A snooker club owner whose insurance company won’t pay up because they think he burned the place down himself. That sort of case.
Today is an odds and ends day.
10am. After two hours’ paperwork at his desk, it’s time to see his first client. Vanessa O’Donnell, wardrobe and make-up consultant on the Scottish film Pasty Faces, is suing the producer for unpaid wages. O’Donnell, a glamourpuss with long platinum-blonde hair, agreed to defer payment until the movie was in profit and believes that time may now have come. Fyfe decides to serve a writ to get the accounts produced.
10:30 am. Alex McShane, 38-years-old and severely mentally handicapped, fell out of a window at the home where he lives in the care of Glasgow social work department. His mother Robina is prepared to sue on his behalf. It’s not the money, she says, "It’s the principle of the thing that’s happened to my wean."
11am. Karen Mitchell and her family are seeking compensation after the death of her father James Mitchell last year. Terrorised by a neighbour for eight years, they had repeatedly complained to their landlord, Glasgow City Council. When the neighbour was finally evicted, he went next door and killed James. Fyfe explains that it is almost impossible to sue the police, but he believes they have a case against the council for not evicting the neighbour sooner and for not warning them once the decision to evict was taken.
11:30am. Like most of today’s clients, Fyfe’s next visitors have had their story splashed across the newspapers. However, their name has never been printed, and they’d like to keep it that way. They are considering suing Glasgow social work department after their daughter was mistaken for another child with the same first name and removed from her primary 2 class. It’s not the money: they just want to make sure it never happens to anyone else.
11:55am. A brief interruption while Fyfe takes a phone call from the BBC requesting an interview. He is fascinated by the media, and an old hand at the soundbite. You name it, he’s been on it: News at Ten, The 6 o’clock News, GMTV, Dispatches, all the Scottish news programmes ... But he keeps his media exposure dignified. No radio quizzes or interviews about his favourite tie.
Noon. Margaret Murray’s 19-year-old daughter Karen was resident in Newcraigs mental hospital in Inverness when they let her out for the day. She got drunk and tried to hang herself. Now she is permanently brain-damaged. Fyfe suggests his client gets appointed Karen’s legal guardian as a first step towards suing the hospital for negligence.
"A sad one," Fyfe says when Margaret has left. That’s for sure. But then most of his cases are touched by tragedy of one sort or another. Five of today’s clients are grieving over unforeseen deaths. These bald summaries can’t begin to convey the brutal turn their lives have taken. They all say they’re not interested in the money, and though this might be politeness - the same impulse that causes them to turn up in their smartest clothes, the women in full make-up - it’s credible enough. What seems to matter to them is the fight: the need to hit back at the forces which have made them feel so powerless.
Fyfe will only go along with the idea of himself as champion of the underdog so far. It’s very rare that he takes a case on a "no win, no fee" basis; almost all his clients are on legal aid or paying 120 an hour. He doesn’t identify with them. He compares the job to a surgeon’s: for the clients’ sakes as much as his own, he can’t let himself be touched too deeply. "You have to watch yourself. I’ve known some lawyers get emotionally involved, especially when it’s the sex abuse cases." He has a stepson and two young children, with a third on the way. At the office he triple-checks every detail, but when he goes home at six o’clock he puts work out of his mind.
12:30pm. Anne Fitzpatrick comes in to discuss getting a court order against Glasgow education department under the Sex Discrimination Act. Her son Neil, an eight-year-old pupil at Notre Dame Primary, wants the right to attend Notre Dame High, currently a girls-only school. It’s the fourth case of the day involving Glasgow City Council, with another still to come. There must be a filing cabinet in the City Chambers stuffed with legal letters signed by Cameron S Fyfe.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea about these cases. He makes them look so straightforward: steering each meeting past the blind alleys to focus on what is germane, while seeming to take the lead from the client. He’ll fire off a letter and, if that doesn’t bring satisfaction, issue a writ, get a court order. But his legal logic is often highly ingenious. What he likes best is solving puzzles, spotting loopholes and connections lesser lawyers are blind to. Take his last appointment of the day, Helen McKenna, whose career as a cleaner and, latterly, janitor of Glasgow schools ended in the summer after her 65th birthday. Fyfe believes her compulsory retirement breaches the European Convention on Human Rights by discriminating against her on the grounds of age. Most lawyers would have shown her the door.
You’d never guess it from his manner, but Fyfe is a risk-taker. His old teacher, Robert Black, professor of Scots Law at Edinburgh University, says he’s one of a number of solicitors currently testing the boundaries in Scotland.
"He’s willing to chance his arm: that’s how the law develops."
Occasionally during Fyfe’s largely frictionless account of himself, he will betray a hint of disdain for that dull fellow, the average lawyer. They’re very conventional, he says. They don’t seem to be attracted by the work he enjoys. "Often a lawyer’s job is pretty mundane. It can be a bit dreary. Divorce work: we’ve heard it all before. The same with crime. To get a couple of cases where you have to think more laterally and use your imagination appealed to me. Possibly I’m better at those than I am at the routine work." And possibly, though he’s too canny to spell it out, other solicitors are worse.
2:45pm. Rhona Raphael comes in to discuss her son’s claim for damages after being bullied at Lenzie Academy. Rhona’s daughter Nicola committed suicide, also becauseof bullying, but the link is unprovable in court. Christopher has witnesses who saw him beaten up. If he wins it’ll be the first successful bullying case in Scotland.
3:15pm. Beatrice Gallagher wants to sue the hospital where her husband contracted MRSA, the flesh-eating bug, which she believes killed him. She agrees to pay for a specialist report into the cause of death. If they can prove lack of hygiene was to blame that would really open the doors, Fyfe says: "If everybody started making claims it could be billions."
3:45pm. Frank Docherty is one of 500 clients claiming compensation for childhood abuse when he lived in a home run by the Catholic Church. They are close to getting a date for the final hearing but there’s been a setback: the Court of Session recently ruled out any claims dating from before 1964. Fyfe hopes the solicitor in the relevant case will appeal, reversing the cut-off point. Plan B is for the claimants to persuade their MSPs to change the law. Failing that, there’s always the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
Frank is ready to do whatever it takes. "We were brought up strict Catholic: you die you’re going to Hell." There was only one way those abused in Catholic institutions could get back at the Church: "You call us liars, we’re not coming back to your chapel." They’re now approaching the end of their lives. "We were brainwashed. I think the fear in them is ‘we’re going to hell’. If you get this apology, that releases their bitterness."
Suddenly he launches into a tribute to his lawyer. "What you’ve done for us … there’s not a lot of people would have got the guts you’ve got." As Fyfe smiles modestly at the table, it occurs to me that he is less like a surgeon than a secular priest. He hates the formality of the law, wigs and gowns and posh accents; he’s a shirt-sleeves solicitor who prefers to be on first-name terms with his clients; and yet there’s something almost otherworldly about him.
He’s a Christian, it turns out. Not a churchgoer - it’s too dull for him - but possessed of "total and utter belief." It’s a legacy of his mother, who died of leukaemia when he was 21. "If anything it strengthened my faith. I thought she was such a good person there must be an afterlife." Mother and son were very close. It’s the greatest loss of his life. Of course, he adds, everyone’s parents die, and she was ill for two years, so he had time to get used to the idea.
Cool, calculating, disciplined, well-organised, tenacious, restrained: these are the adjectives his closest friends use to describe Cameron Fyfe. He’s a different man away from the office - relaxed, charming, good company - but there are consistent strands. That lawyer’s application finds expression in an exhausting list of hobbies: painting, writing poetry and song lyrics, playing the guitar. He’s penned a novel, a pacy crime thriller. He fly-fishes, plays tennis and golf. And, at work or home, there’s the same liking for order, the unfailing self-control.
Not once in seven hours did I see Cameron Fyfe contradict a client. He employs a similar technique when being interviewed: seeming to assent without actively agreeing. In desperation I appeal to the puzzle-solver in him. Often a person’s chosen profession connects with their deepest needs. Psychology students are into self-analysis. Advice workers want to be helped. Writers, those great communicators, feel unusually misunderstood. What is he looking for in litigation law? He shrugs. "I don’t think it’s as deep as that. I think I have a low boredom threshold."
The law is an oppositional trade, based on ritualised combat. Does he ever get aggressive? Never. Sometimes he’s tempted, but invariably he resists. "You can be more powerful if you’re always restrained. Aggressive people show their hand." And not showing your hand is crucial. "One of my boyhood heroes was the tennis player Bjrn Borg. I was always absolutely amazed at how he never reacted to anything. Whatever it was, he was always stony-faced. I thought: that’s the way to do things. If you don’t reveal at all you can have more chance of succeeding. You know how body language can give your opponent an edge: they’d no edge because they never knew what he was thinking."
For Fyfe, self-control is a moral as well as a tactical virtue. "I can’t be bothered with folk who are emotionally incontinent. You’ve got to pull yourself together, really." The sight of Paul Gascoigne blubbing his eyes out was pathetic, he spits. "Maybe it’s a Christian thing again. When you think something’s gone wrong, you think about how other people in the world are: people with leukaemia etc."
And yet he spends all day dealing with people so battered by life that they can’t help showing their feelings. Maybe that’s what he’s seeking, I suggest: a bit of vicarious emotional incontinence, a space for grief. His reaction rivals Bjorn Borg for stony-facedness. "I’ve been fortunate in that, apart from my mum dying, nothing awful’s ever happened to me."
And there the conversation closes. Well, you don’t expect to get the last word with a 1200-a day litigation lawyer, and least of all with that most calculating of risk-takers, the poker-faced Cameron Fyfe.
You have to feel sorry for Glasgow City Council.