Practising in the field I do, I know only too well how everything can change in an instant. An accident occurs on the journey to work and suddenly the day to day worries have fallen away to be replaced literally by matters of life and death. When disaster does strike, at least we are fortunate in this country to have the NHS to pick up the pieces. High quality emergency care allows many to survive even the most critical injuries.
Just as we can be proud of the NHS, we have also been able to boast of the best justice system in the world. However, while all of us expect to call on the NHS to some extent, few anticipate finding themselves in court. We know that in these times of austerity some services will suffer. It may be popular to attack a system that most think does not exist for their benefit. Recent attacks on both the civil and criminal justice system threaten what we have.
Reforms of the civil claims system have been backed by media reports focusing on whiplash claims. Does it matter that driving down the cost of such claims will also impact on claims for catastrophic injury? So often I have met someone who has been in the wrong place at the wrong time and thought it could be any one of us. Sadly, because of funding cuts, services for those with brain injury are severely stretched. A compensation claim can provide a decent quality of life for the injured person and his or her family that would not otherwise exist. Maintaining a strong claims system is important for us all.
It may be less easy to see that we might ever have cause to rely on the criminal justice system. Media portrayals suggest that money is being wasted on looking after the "criminal underclass" at the expense of victims. We can see that we might victims of burglary for example but we know we will not become criminals. Those who do so have surely made a choice to follow the wrong path.
Mark * was a young man who had chosen not to fall into a life of crime. From a difficult background, his mother left him aged 14 when she met a new partner. This might have been a catalyst for disaster. Many of his friends were already beginning to get into trouble. Instead, Mark went to live with his grandmother Jackie, a remarkable woman who made sure he was on the right path. Leaving school at 16, Mark got a job in the building trade. This was the making of him. He worked hard and was well liked. Initially on the minimum wage, he demonstrated such potential and commitment that his boss promoted him above others older than him. He rose to that challenge. Charming and good-looking, he was settled with a girlfriend. I wish that this story ended "and they lived happily ever after".
Instead, Mark was riding his moped to a building site when he was hit by a driver who just never saw him. Mark suffered a severe brain injury. His survival was touch and go but survive he did. He made a very good recovery, so good in fact he was able to go back to work. His boss was delighted to have him back. Sadly, the Mark who went back to work was not the same. His work had to be redone by others. He became angry and conflicts arose – a serious safety issue on a building site. After several months, his boss had to let him go. His relationship broke down. Mark felt that he had lost everything. The damage to his frontal lobe not only caused his problems but also meant his insight was poor. His behaviour spiralled down and culminated in him being arrested for a serious assault.
By then, Mark had built a good relationship with the solicitor managing his personal injury claim. He was able to recommend a criminal solicitor who he thought Mark would listen to. Reports obtained in the civil claims were forwarded and discussion took place between the two solicitors. Mark was advised to plead guilty. He trusted his solicitor and followed the advice. The effects of his brain injury were fully explored and proper mitigation was put forward. In the meantime, we were able to use this incident to get Mark to see that he needed help and to accept case management and support.
Mark received a non-custodial sentence. He accepted the support on offer and a package was built to ensure his days were structured so that he would not drift into further trouble. There was a happy ending of sorts. Mark may not have the life he once dreamed of but things could be so much worse. Mark's compensation is now serving its proper purpose and restoring quality of life as far as possible while also helping to keep him out of further brushes with the law. His arrest was a turning point. Fortunately, through the work of both his personal injury and criminal lawyers he was given the chance to turn back onto the right path.
I am concerned that if the Government's latest proposals come into effect, the next Mark will not be given a choice of criminal solicitor. He may be lucky and happen to be allocated a solicitor who understands the impact of brain injury but he may not. Unlike in Mark's case, the personal injury solicitor will not be able to assist in identifying the best man or woman for the criminal case. Mark needed careful handling and was at a vulnerable point. If the opportunity to intervene positively had been lost I strongly suspect Mark might now be adding to the already worrying statistics about the incidence of prior traumatic brain injury in the prison population.
Think it could never happen to you? Think again. All the reports of Mark before the accident were of a charming, hard-working and committed young man. His brain injury changed everything.
Mark and others like him are part of the reason I have signed the petitions to save our criminal legal aid system. Please consider doing the same. You can find them here:
(* names have been changed to protect identities)