Meeting of minds

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CATRIONA Headley was picking her way through a particularly challenging medical report when the idea came to her. As a solicitor with personal injury specialists Digby Brown, she came across medical reports a lot – but there were times when she found it hard to work out just exactly what they were saying.

“I was trying to get my head around this really complicated report and thought, ‘I’m struggling here’. The last of my scientific education was Higher biology and I realised a lot of other lawyers out there must be in the same position when it came to complex reports,” recalls Headley.

It was a lightbulb moment – and, as the highly motivated president of the Scottish Young Lawyers Association (SYLA), Headley was in a position to do something about it. And she did – by organising a medico-legal conference that looks at those awkward areas where the professions meet.

Headley has been helped in putting together the event by her friend, Glasgow-based surgeon Tom Berry, a member of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors committee in Scotland: “I started off with the idea of a doctor coming along to talk to SYLA members about medical reports, but when I talked to Tom, it grew from an evening seminar, to an afternoon event, then we started discussing maybe doing a conference.

“There are so many areas where doctors and lawyers collide that there was a lot of scope for this kind of event. I started speaking to other people and the reactions were very positive; it seemed to capture their imagination, on both the legal and the medical side. All the speakers we contacted were very keen to be involved too.”

Berry welcomed the approach from Headley: “I thought it was a very good suggestion. Doctors and lawyers often have to work together and anything like this is very helpful. You start off with the obvious areas – expert witnesses and doctors in court, and you lead on to issues of guardianship and end-of-life care; entrusting doctors with decisions about withholding care and so on.

“In my area, surgery, we need to be aware of all the pitfalls and the issues surrounding the litigation process. The event has a good agenda to appeal to a wide variety of doctors – hospital doctors and GPs have a very different outlook, but the agenda appeals to all doctors and at all levels.”

Berry and Headley say people couldn’t remember any large-scale medico-legal conference in Scotland in the last decade. “There have been specific smaller-scale events but nothing like this for a while,” Headley says.

So the pair used their contacts to attract an impressive list of expert speakers, while Headley secured the Signet Library in Edinburgh as the venue with the help of Robert Pirrie at the WS Society. The conference will be followed by a dinner at the Royal College of Surgeons building.

When putting together the programme, pitching the content at the right level was crucial – and Headley hit on the idea of having general sessions for lawyers and doctors in the morning, then a more focused programme in the afternoon.

Some of the agenda took care of itself – the Scottish Government’s No-Fault Compensation Review on medical negligence costs was always going to be a good crossover topic.

Two of the review group who worked on the issue are contributing to the event – Prof Kenneth Norrie of the University of Strathclyde and Dr Robert Hendry (Medical Protection Society) will lead an introduction and debate on the subject.

Headley thinks that this session might be the most contentious: “If there is an area where there is an element of disagreement, this is likely to be it,” she says.

Other morning sessions include Gerald Hanretty QC (of co-sponsors Arnot Manderson) on what impact expert evidence can have upon the delivery of justice in the courts – including contentious areas such as shaken baby syndrome, where “expert” evidence has led to miscarriages of justice.

Another morning session will involve Sue Grant, a partner in Digby Brown Solicitors, the other co-sponsor, and David Allan (director of the Queen Elizabeth National Spinal Injuries Unit) to advise delegates on medical and legal considerations in cases involving major or catastrophic injury.

Grant praises the quality of the event: “Our firm recognises the close working relationship which has to exist between the legal and medical professions in the fields of personal injury and clinical negligence.

“This conference offers an opportunity to explore the roles of each profession and how they complement each other. Bringing the fields together at such a conference creates an open forum, stimulates debate and is a useful environment for building future contacts.”

The specialist afternoon sessions, listed in the panel above right, cover an enormous range of topics, with the underlying aim of improving understanding and working relationships between the two professions.

However, Headley and Berry are both adamant that the current relationship is not a bad one.

“I have never come across any mutual suspicion,” Headley insists, while Berry adds: “Generally, the professions work well together. Lawyers in the Medical Defence Union, for example, are always very helpful. There is no real mistrust or suspicion.”

However, Headley was given a warning by her mother, a teacher: “She said that when you work with different professions, it can be challenging because they will approach things very differently.

“One thing I thought about in planning this was, ‘Two minds that do not think alike’. Lawyers tend to deal in absolutes and doctors don’t – and trying to balance that from whatever end you are looking at is the goal. There have been challenges doing that, but the first time putting something like this together is always the hardest.”

So what do Headley and Berry hope to achieve from the event? Headley has simple, but ambitious aims: “I want a well-attended event – between 100 and 150 delegates split across the two professions – and for everyone there to enjoy it, for it to be relevant and for it to be seen as a starting point for years to come.”

And she has a more prosaic hope, too: “Personally, I hope it will help me better understand medical reports.”

l The Dual Profession Conference on Medico-Legal Practice, sponsored by Digby Brown LLP and Arnot Manderson Advocates, takes place on Friday 16 September in the Signet Library, Edinburgh