PATRICK McGuire never wanted to become a lawyer so perhaps it is no surprise that, having been persuaded to join the profession, he has spent his career questioning the laws that bind us.
The Thompsons Solicitors partner, who followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the firm, said that while most lawyers take the stance that the answer to a legal problem “can only be found in the law”, he begs to differ.
“I don’t view things that way,” he said. “The law can be wrong and the law often has been wrong. I always take the view that where it is wrong, questionable or unclear it’s our duty to do something about that.
“Over the years a lot of my time has been spent campaigning to clarify the law, sometimes through the media or parliamentary work and sometimes taking test cases to push the boundaries.”
This sense that the law could and should be challenged was instilled in Mr McGuire early in his career when he worked on a corporate homicide case.
Although at that point his role was to win compensation for the family involved, he and they felt they could do more good by also fighting to ensure no-one else had to suffer a similar loss.
“You see all too often the impact and devastation that workplace fatalities have on people’s lives,” Mr McGuire said.
“If a family is unfortunate enough to suffer the loss of a loved one we will fight tooth and nail to get them what they’re entitled to but actually we felt it would be much better if the law was changed to deter those things from happening in the first place.
“Seeing families affected in that way I recognised that a real change was needed, that the law didn’t contain enough deterrents in terms of what happens to wrongdoers on the corporate side.
“I spent a lot of time working with campaign groups like Families Against Corporate Killers, the STUC and Amicus [now Unite] and that ultimately led to the then justice minister Cathy Jamieson setting up an expert panel to look at this.
“Ultimately that did lead to change, albeit via Westminster, with the Scottish Government eventually taking the decision to allow the UK to enact a piece of legislation to cover the entire country.”
Although Mr McGuire said Thompsons “continues to campaign” because it feels the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act does not go far enough, he added that the case exemplifies what he feels his role as a solicitor should be.
“When you can make a difference in one person’s life it’s wonderful but if its hundreds that’s when you can go to bed a pretty content person,” he said.
It is in this respect that Thompsons in Scotland is carrying on the work of trade union champion Harry Thompson, who originally established the firm in England in the early 1920s.
In addition to fighting for better compensation for people injured at work, Thompsons Scotland has played a leading role for victims of numerous high-profile medical scandals, representing women affected by vaginal mesh and PIP breast implants as well as men and women who were maimed after receiving metal-on-metal hip replacements.
While the firm takes on these cases and others like them with the aim of winning compensation for the victims, Mr McGuire said a common theme for the people involved is more to have their suffering recognised than to receive huge sums of cash.
“A payout is not the principal purpose – the main drivers are that they want answers,” he explained.
“They want it laid bare for everyone to see so their wrongdoer can have the light of public scrutiny shone on them. The reality – and this has struck me throughout my career – is that humans are driven by altruism in their deepest, darkest moments.
“Yes a family is angry that a wife didn’t come home from work but they don’t want anyone else to go through that. They don’t want any other product brought onto the market that can do this to others.
“Altruism is the golden thread that works its way through every group action I’ve ever been involved in.”
Given these drivers, much of the work that Mr McGuire and his team does goes beyond the legal sphere, with the firm actively bringing groups of people together to help them get their message across.
Currently the firm is involved in bringing action on behalf of around 100 survivors of historical sex abuse, with the Scottish Government’s decision to lift the time bar on such cases meaning that rather than the normal three years applying the limitation period now extends back to 1964.
Although Mr McGuire said the decision not to lift the limitation period completely is “totally and utterly unfair”, he added that the cases are among the most important and challenging that the firm has ever handled.
“We spend a lot of time and effort winning the trust of these groups,” he said.
“We’re dealing with people where all trust in authority is gone. Everyone they have reached out to has let them down in a dreadful way.
“We have to go in with complete transparency and honesty. It takes a high number of highly skilled, fully trained, empathetic individuals.
“These cases are emotionally difficult and we have a duty of care to our staff too. We took the view that those involved in this type of work couldn’t be forced to do it, it had to be a choice.”
Ultimately, whether these cases will succeed will be for the courts to decide, but Mr McGuire believes that if the victims can get some comfort from meeting people in the same situation and having their stories listened to and believed the firm will have achieved some measure of success.
“It’s about changing the dialogue,” he said.
“Lawyers shouldn’t think their work begins and ends with the four corners of the law.”