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History of the firm

Leigh Day is a highly distinctive law firm and one that is not afraid to take on challenges that would daunt many others.  The firm was 20 years old in 2007 which provided an excellent opportunity to recall the history of the firm and some of its most important cases. 

Sarah Leigh OBELeigh Day was founded on 10th June 1987.  The firm now has over 100 staff members but in 1987 the picture was very different.

Clinical negligence solicitor Sarah Leigh OBE (pictured) left Bindmans in 1985 to form a specialist personal injury firm.  She quickly invited Martyn Day to join her from Bindmans and Leigh Day & Co was created, with its first offices in Gray’s Inn Road.  Initially Sarah concentrated on clinical negligence work while Martyn was heavily involved with a case against BNFL representing a family in Sellafield who claimed they had traces of plutonium in their house.

It was clear from the firm’s early days that the demand from people for legal representation who had been injured was huge and expansion followed as the firm was joined by clinical negligence and personal injury specialists.  Early arrivals included clinical negligence partners Russell Levy and Anne Winyard who are now joint heads of the department which now has the largest collection of lawyers, paralegals and forensic accountants focusing specifically on clinical negligence in the UK. The 11- partner strong department has pioneered the pursuit of claims for children who suffer cerebral palsy as a result of mismanaged births and represents other clients who have suffered catastrophic injuries because of sub-standard medical care.

Martyn's team grew with the arrival of Richard Meeran in 1990 who proceeded to launch successful innovative group actions on behalf of miners and other workers suffering from industrial diseases against British companies both in the UK and abroad.

The firm quickly developed a reputation as one that was prepared to deal with all aspects of personal injury and human rights law, with a particular strength in representing those who have suffered injury against national and local government authorities and services, powerful commercial organisations and institutions. The personal injury department expanded alongside the other departments, Sally Moore joined the firm in 1991 and quickly developed a national reputation for representing workers who have been exposed to asbestos.  She has also obtained what is believed to be the highest ever personal injury award for a client (£8m).  Sue Bence moved to Leigh Day in 2002 and has enhanced the firm's reputation in representing athletes, especially cyclists through her work with British Cycling and the British Triathlon Association.

The opening of a human rights department was a natural development for Leigh Day once the Human Rights Act had been incorporated into English law.  The department is headed by Frances Swaine. The human rights department, like the rest of the firm, continually develops the accepted interpretation of the law as it offers support for people in challenging decisions of public authorities that infringe their rights to medical and social services and their environmental rights.  The work of partner Richard Stein is often in the news as he deals with high-profile ‘right-to-die’ cases and challenges the decisions made by public authorities. Pioneering cases that the department has handled include the successful battle by Diane Blood to have the children of her dead husband, representing the Save our Railways campaign and Corner House who are challenging the decision by the SFO to drop an investigation into bribery allegations involving BAE Systems plc in Saudi Arabia.

The complex claims department is led by founding partner Martyn Day who continues to develop the firm’s expertise in multi-party actions as he challenges the actions of corporations and governments which have resulted in injury and death for those affected.

Here Martyn recalls the early days of Leigh Day:

Strikes, strife and the setting up of Leigh Day

"My mum tells me I was an active member of the awkward squad when I was a child. It seems clear that this characteristic did not change when I was in my twenties and was an employee. There is little doubt in my mind that it was this side of my character that lead to the setting up of Leigh Day & Co.  It all goes back to threatening that strike.

I first met Sarah Leigh when she was a Partner at Bindman & Partners where I had applied for a job in their Immigration Department.  Interviewing me (with a wooden parrot watching over us from behind her shoulder) I knew immediately that I had found a lawyer I could work with.  My previous employer, Frank Clifford, had kicked me out of his firm with the words “you’ll never make an injury lawyer” ringing in my ears so I was keen to move into another area of law. I took to Bindman & Partners, one of the country’s leading human rights firms, like a fish to water.

However, that didn’t stop my strifey side coming to the fore.  As a young idealist I had persuaded the Partners at Bindmans to agree to the running of the firm by a Management Committee which including staff representatives. Despite the firm taking this remarkably radical step I kept on pushing and at a pay round in 1985 the staff reps pressed for the lower paid members of staff to have a pay increase. When the Partners used their block vote to veto the proposal I came out with the not well received words “that means many of the staff will not be coming in tomorrow”. One of the Partners asked me does that mean you are going on strike and I said “if that’s how you want to interpret it”.

As one might imagine this did not go down well (I sometimes wonder how I would deal with a solicitor who was quite such a pain in the butt as I was at Bindmans). As a result of the threatened strike when it came to the Partnership considering me as a potential candidate to join them the following year it is hardly surprising to me now that they effectively told me that I was on probation for twelve months and that if I kept my nose clean there was a good chance that I would be accepted.

I smiled sweetly at the Partnership but immediately turned to Sarah Leigh who had left the firm the previous year and had at that stage asked me to join her in setting up a new firm.  At the point when she left I was still greatly enjoying my life at Bindmans and rejected Sarah’s proposal.  However on being put on probation that sent me off like a homing pigeon to Sarah’s Hampstead house where she had set up her practice and where I said that if she agreed to the setting up of a firm in Town she had herself a deal.

The following twelve months were spent in the planning and setting up of the office in Gray’s Inn Road and we commenced operations on 10 June 1987. Immediately prior to setting up, I had been approached by Greenpeace Netherlands to advise them in relation to the blocking of the radiative waste pipeline at the nuclear power plant at Sellafield. Luckily for me I was able to take the case take with me to the new firm. Within hours of the firm commencing I was walking on the Cumbrian beach at Seascale, opposite the nuclear power station, waiting to be picked up by a Greenpeace dingy to be taken on board as a result of the organisation having been served with an injunction by helicopter flown up from the Court in London.  Quite a start to life in the new firm. The excitement of the practice has rarely dwindled from those early heady days.

In retrospect, entering into Partnership with Sarah was ideal for who I was at that time. She was the perfect foil for my excesses, although in fact she rarely vetoed my ideas. Knowing that I would have to present the proposals to her was often enough to discourage me from getting too carried away.  Giving each other space to make our own decisions and indeed our own mistakes was a key feature of the new practice and is a feature that has continued to this day.  It has been a cracking twenty years. I only hope the next twenty are anything like as good."

The future

The work that Leigh Day has taken on in the past 20 years has always been challenging, ground-breaking, bold and exciting.  The firm has not always won every case it has taken on, but always fights back after disappointing decisions and will continue to fight for justice for those whose human rights have been abused and for those who have suffered injury through the actions of others.

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