Law: On a personal matter: Michael Napier, new president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, talks to Sharon Wallach

Four years after it was launched with 200 members, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil) now numbers 1,400, and increasing by about 10 a week.

At the organisation's annual meeting and spring conference on Tuesday, Michael Napier was confirmed as the association's new president. Mr Napier, senior partner with the Sheffield firm Irwin Mitchell, was one of four founder members of Apil.

Another was Rodger Pannone, president of the Law Society, who spoke at the conference on a range of matters of interest to personal injury lawyers such as conditional fees, 'after the event' insurance (where the other side's costs are covered if a litigant loses in a 'no win no fee' case), franchising and standard fees.

Membership of Apil is open to academic lawyers and law students, but the majority of its members are practitioners, both solicitors and barristers. Eligibility depends on a declaration that the practitioner acts predominantly for plaintiffs in personal injury (PI) cases.

Apil's aims include working to improve access to the legal system, promoting expertise, and offering a service to the public to prevent harm to consumers. PI lawyers are among the first to become aware of potentially hazardous design defects in products, Apil points out, and its existing database on expert witnesses is about to be extended to take in members' reports on defective products.

Apil held a conference 18 months ago on vehicle safety, including the use of air-bags, Mr Napier says. 'It has been noticeable in the past few months that many manufacturers are now introducing air-bags as standard. I'm not saying that Apil alone was responsible, but it did help bring the issue to public notice.'

In a broad sense, he says the association helps improve both liaison between lawyers and the way they litigate. It also provides a communications network, publishing monthly newsletters and a widely distributed directory of members, an information exchange service, and a series of special interest groups. 'As a broad menu of what Apil aims to do, it has stood up well over the past four years,' Mr Napier says.

The Law Society runs a personal injury panel, membership of which denotes that a level of expertise is formally recognised. Apil is not an externally accredited organisation, but, Mr Napier points out, it may be another plus point for the potential client in helping him choose a lawyer.

'We educate our members to provide PI law as well as possible,' he says. Apil runs an active education programme, masterminded by its vice-president, Caroline Harmer, a barrister and former College of Law lecturer. 'This may have the incidental benefit for newly admitted lawyers that it may help them when applying for the PI panel,' Mr Napier says.

'It would be wrong to overstate the use of Apil membership a marketing tool. It is very much an organisation of like-minded people sharing their knowledge and, although this may sound trite, putting the client first.'

Apil and the PI panel are not linked in any formal way but, says Mr Napier, they often work closely on major issues - a recent example is the criminal injuries compensation scheme. The issue of access to the funding of litigation is high on the agenda of PI lawyers. In Mr Napier's view, Apil is part of an inter- relationship between the introduction of conditional fees, the Law Society's accident line, 'after the event' insurance, (which is central to the way in which conditional fees will work), and the PI panel. 'It makes a square of arrangements that might go some way towards plugging the access to justice gap caused by the reduction in legal aid eligibility,' he says

For the first three years of Apil's life, Mr Napier acted as secretary and organised its administration from his own office. Since last autumn, however, Apil has had a permanent base in Nottingham with a staff of three, including a full-time director, Denise Kitchener.

The association is looking forward to a number of things - holding its first residential conference next year, the continued expansion of its membership and of all its stated aims and principles.

'We are keen to improve standards in the practice of personal injury law, and in particular, helping our members with the introduction of conditional fees, which is a complex subject. The regulations should be coming in soon,' Mr Napier says. 'We are very concerned that the interest of the client will be fully taken into account, at the same time as the interest of the solicitors taking the risk of taking the case on. I suspect we will have a lot of work to do to help our members.'

The association is also keen to make its voice heard. Earlier this year, it published the result of independent research commissioned from Sheffield University to counter the Lord Chancellor's arguments that personal injury and other legal aid work was too expensive. According to Mr Napier, the research revealed what PI lawyers have known all along - that the vast majority of cases succeed.

Another important task is responding to Law Commission consultation papers on damages. 'We are a special interest group for this area of law,' Mr Napier says. 'Our voice is being heard, and now all bodies issuing consultation papers seek our views. We have become a credible part of the system.'

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