Bren and the art of motorcycle law

WHEN she was studying law at Aberdeen University, Brenda Mitchell loved nothing more than to take off on her motorbike every weekend and explore the Highlands and Islands. At her home in the Borders, there are four off-road motorbikes in the garage, belonging to Brenda, her husband and their two children.

There's no denying motorbikes have always been her passion, which is why this solicitor from Edinburgh is thrilled to be heading Scotland's only motorcycle law division – at Digby Brown. To celebrate the new venture the company has stepped up its sponsorship of a Scottish Motorsport team, currently leading two major national championships.

The Digby Brown Racing team, put together by team manager Gordon Thomson is leading in both the Scottish Championship and the Sound of Thunder Championship with customised Triumph Daytona supersport bikes.

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Digby Brown, personal injury lawyers based in the Southside of Edinburgh, set up a department to serve the special needs of motorcyclists earlier this year. Although there are similar specialised departments at law firms in England, Mitchell believes the one she heads at Digby Brown is the only one of its kind in Scotland.

"We decided to set up a separate department just to service the needs of motorcyclists," she says. "They have quite different needs and requirements and it can take quite a lot of knowledge and understanding."

To illustrate the point, she pulls out a sheaf of papers from her desk showing photos of stretches of road where motorcyclists have had accidents. She points out streaks of bitumen on the road, which to a car would prevent no obstacle, but which for a motorbike could be the key to a serious accident: difficulties often arise when there is a single-vehicle accident, where a motorcyclist loses control as a result of a road-surface defect."

Although there is no difference in the law as it applies to motorcyclists, Mitchell was convinced bikers were losing out in courts and in dealing with insurance companies because of a lack of understanding about handling bikes.

It is not actually compulsory for members of her team to learn to ride bikes, but every one of them has to complete an introductory course run by former motorcycle champion John Macdonald. The course is designed to ensure they all know as much as possible about the way motorbikes behave on the road.

Mitchell believes prejudice against motorcyclists can sometimes skew accounts of accidents involving bikes: "There is a prejudice against them – and if witnesses are slightly prejudiced against motorcyclists, they can get a different view of things. Our job is to turn over any stone we can and make sure justice is done. The law is the same and the application of the law is the same – but our speciality is to establish the factual basis of the claim."

And because motorcyclists are prone to serious injury, it is important to make sure the best medical information is made availabe. "The profile of motorcyclists has changed. Most are men between 40 and 50 who rode bikes in their youth, then got back into it. They buy big sports bikes that are not the bikes they rode when they were younger."

"Our main expertise is looking at how accidents happen but we have a lot of experts in the firm who can look at the impact of an accident. Motorcyclists are vulnerable to serious injury – and our firm also has a dedicated brain and spinal injuries department."

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As well as making sure rehabilitation and early intervention are a part of any compensation package it is also important to make sure families are looked after. For a motorcyclist who has had an accident, Mitchell believes working with a law firm that understands bikes can make the difference between winnng or losing a compensation case.

"One of the reasons I became so passionate about this was because of a case about five years ago," she says. "A friend got in touch to ask if I could have a word with this guy. He had had an accident and was about three weeks away from a final court hearing, but things were not going well."

The motorcyclist had been seriously injured after an accident in which he crashed into the side of a car. But the problem was a witness claimed the cyclist had lost control of the bike and was already spinning across the ground before hitting the other vehicle. "He said he couldn't understand it – that wasn't what had happened."

Mitchell went back to the original police photographs and studied them again. She realised the marks on the car were too high up for the motorbike to have been on the ground, and with the speed of the accident, the witness must have been mistaken about what had happened. The lack of paint marks on the road also helped to prove that the motorcyclist had still been on the bike when he hit the car.

Digby Brown's involvement with motorsport began last year when Brenda persuaded the company to sponsor teenage riders Tim Hastings and Robbie Stewart. The sponsorship deal was extended to include Dino Brown and David Paton and paraplegic sidecar racer Kerr Douglas.

"Last year, John McDonald approached me and said, 'You sponsor loads of young riders – what about sponsoring your own race team?' I thought, 'What a fantastic idea.'"

McDonald said he would come out of retirement to join the team and Derek Glass said he would be delighted to take part. It was decided to race Triumphs "because they are British and because they are quite quirky".

Mitchell needs little persuasion to spend every available weekend at the race track, but the success of the team has encouraged many other members of the law firm to develop an interest in motorsport. She hopes the high profile of the team will carry their name to motorcyclists who have had an accident and need their help: "I'm passionate about what I do for a living and I love my job – and I have always loved motorbikes. Now I have the bonus of bringing the two together."

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