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St John’s Chambers’ Brain Injury Conference

Earlier this month, St John’s Chambers, in partnership with Headway, organised a brain injury conference in Bristol. As well as being a very interesting and informative event, it was an opportunity to raise funds for Headway, the charity that provides advice and assistance to individuals who have suffered brain injury and their families.

The conference began with Dr John Holloway, Consultant Neuropsychiatrist at North Bristol NHS Trust, who provided a fascinating and easy-to-follow explanation of how the brain is affected in the course of an accident (particularly road traffic accidents) and described how injuries are actually sustained. Addressing a non-medical audience in a limited timeframe made this a difficult task, but Dr Holloway hit a perfect balance.

There then followed talks from Richard Stead and Glyn Edwards, two senior barristers from St John’s. Richard Stead took us through the minefield that is assessing contributory negligence in relation to the post-accident actions of a brain-injured individual. Glyn Edwards, meanwhile, had the equally onerous task of guiding attendees through the case law relating to capacity, an issue that remains at the forefront of every brain-injury case and one which can cause huge practical difficulties.

Michael Knott of Irwin Mitchell solicitors and Alex Ralton, a District Judge in the Court of Protection, then provided insightful guides to the practical everyday challenges of acting as a professional deputy and dealing with the Court of Protection, respectively.

In the afternoon, the day’s most highly anticipated presentations took place from Dr Nigel Walton and Professor Rodger Wood, who are regarded as two of the country’s leading neuropsychologists, and are also well-known names in litigation circles. Their focus was on the symptoms that occur after minor traumatic brain injury (MTBI) and the concerns surrounding why some individuals suffer long-term disabling symptoms following MTBI.

While they are generally regarded as being diametrically opposed in their views, what was apparent – and perhaps surprising – from their presentations was that Dr Walton and Professor Wood agreed on a large number of issues. In the debate that followed their talks, it was clear that the real difference between them was their approach to the assessment process. Professor Wood, who is considered to be the claimant’s preferred expert, is heavily reliant upon his own clinical assessment, based on his training and extensive experience. Dr Walton – considered the defendants’ choice – advocated a process that took far more account of standardised tests and statistical evidence. Both made compelling arguments.

For litigators, the two approaches create something of a dilemma. On the one hand, litigators thrive on differences of opinion – without which there would be no issues to litigate upon. On the other hand, when dealing with cases that are already fraught with difficulty, as well as emotion, for the claimant and their family, it is somewhat frustrating that experts cannot even agree upon the way in which the assessment should be done, let alone the conclusions following that assessment.

With such disagreement between the experts, it means that there is an even smaller chance of lawyers narrowing issues and reaching agreement. For the foreseeable future, the divisions cased by the Wood and Walton approaches will continue to prevail in courtroom litigation.

Posted on Dec 6th, 2011 by Lyons Davidson