Law: Day of the public is here

Britain's top campaigning lawyer is determined to make a difference
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The Independent Culture
MARTYN DAY, a solicitor, is "awkward and bolshie" - and he should know; that is his own description of himself. But if you are an individual wanting to take on the nuclear industry, the tobacco industry, or both the Japanese and the British government, he is probably the kind of "awkward" lawyer whom you want on your side.

Last week, he met Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office minister, as part of the ongoing quest for compensation and an apology for Japanese prisoners of war. Day's involvement with the case began in 1994 when his uncle, John Gott, asked him to advise the Japan Labour Camp Survivor's Association. The case collapsed at the end of last year in the Tokyo courts, but Day says that, after last week's meeting, it is possible that the Government will reconsider its position.

Day is looking for pounds 13,500 compensation for each of his clients, who received pounds 76 apiece when they returned from Japan in 1955. He says: "Either the British Government will be persuaded to make a claim under Article 26 of the 1951 Peace Treaty with Japan, or the Government will have to pay our claim. Obviously, the PoWs would prefer that the money come from Japan, and that would still leave the issue of an apology open."

Taking on causes like these has led some to describe Day as a lawyer for lost causes. He has challenged British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and sued ICI and the London Docklands Development Board over public nuisance.

The tobacco litigation is also back on track after numerous cases "which pootled on for four years revolving around legal aid funding". The Court of Appeal is due to deliver its judgment in February on whether a number of lung cancer victims are time-barred from continuing in the case. Day says: "What is quite crucial for us is that this is the first time that the judge has looked at the case in any depth.

"The judge will look at the merits of the case - and how he deals with the eight lead plaintiffs will be significant. If he threw all eight cases out, it wouldn't be the end; we still have a group who can continue the case. But we would be very nervous if he made that decision."

The tobacco companies are following this case with keen interest. This is one of the first and largest cases to be run on the basis of no win, no fee, or as Day has called it, "no win, no fee and possible bankruptcy". He estimates that both his firm, Leigh Day & Co, and Irwin Mitchell, have "put up serious money" for this case, investing pounds 3m to pounds 4m in costs and time.

Day also says it is an indication of the commitment of the barristers he has instructed - Robert Owen QC and Brian Langstaff QC - that they are also prepared to act in what may be a six-month trial, and have deferred payment of their fees.

Also, with the recent clamp-down on legal aid, the Lord Chancellor is keeping an eye on the litigation and the way that conditional fees are used in such cases. Day does admit: "If we win, it will persuade other firms to take cases on this basis. But if we don't win, apart from a number of `I told you so's' for this firm, having persuaded my partners once to do this sort of case, I can't see us doing it again."

The fact that his two major cases are "totally uncharted waters" is what appeals to Day. He is in a position now where he looks for the pioneering cases, and is interested in "crafting a case that is unusual".

The point of the firm, which was set up in the late Eighties, was "to give the ordinary man or woman who has been injured in an unusual way the opportunity to take on the corporate world with all its resources. That has been our skill, and where we can make a difference."

Almost all the cases that Day and his firm have taken on have been widely reported in the media. His view is that with such long-running battles, getting positive coverage is part of the lawyer's role in acting for the underdog. With the PoWs' case, he has the backing of the shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Howard, and Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong.

Day chose to do law because law and accountancy were the only two options that vaguely interested him. As his father had been an accountant, he decided to do law, at Warwick, and came to London to do articles. He ended up at the legal aid firm Bindman & Partners, where he threatened to strike over the low pay of the support staff. He was offered a partnership, but left to set up his current firm with Sarah Leigh. The firm now has 14 partners.

Now 41, and with four children aged between two and eight, he quotes the lawyer whom he considers his role model of sorts, Rodger Pannone, senior partner at Pannone & Partners, who told him to "remember your family; the kids are only young once, and you only have one wife at a time".

Day is also looking at other areas where his firm can "make a difference. It's right and proper that we can use the legal system to bring the chickens home to roost against big business. A year ago the health risks associated with mobile phones looked very speculative, but the evidence is mounting up."