Thursday, 20 September 2012

Postcard from Berlin


Towards the end of last week I found myself rushing to catch a plane to Berlin. I duly checked in to The Westin Grand Hotel on Thursday evening, the reason for my visit being the 15th anniversary annual conference of PEOPIL.

PEOPIL is the Pan-European Organisation of Personal Injury Lawyers. The conference began at the Westin Grand on Thursday morning, which meant that I missed its first day, but there remained two days in which a number of topics dear to those who work in the PI sector were covered. They ranged from talks about the recovery of punitive damages in European courts and the use of medical experts to an excellent presentation on establishing jurisdiction by Philip Mead of Old Square Chambers.

However, rather than remark on the technical matters discussed at the conference, I hope regular readers will allow me to make a few general observations.

First, the power of Twitter was harnessed to great effect at the conference by no less a figure than Gerard McDermott QC. In between tweets wishing the Cambridges luck in their privacy action and commending the Times’ coverage of the UBS trial McDermott QC – a leading barrister at Nine St John Street and Outer  chambers – urged more PI barristers to attend conferences like PEOPIL (he observed that only himself and Philip Mead had made the trip) and noted a number of interesting points, for example concerning “conflicts between Hague Convention and Rome II regulation and opportunity for forum shopping”.

As well as updating followers on what was happening at PEOPIL, McDermott, who specialises in medical malpractice, product defects as well as catastrophic road traffic accident litigation, added a few snapshots of Berlin. We saw the Brandenburg Gate and also learnt that “The Westin Grand in Germany is a truly Grand hotel. Built by East Germans before unification. I think to show what they could achieve.”

Twitter-speak doesn’t allow for fulsome descriptions, but I can endorse what Gerard McDermott said about the Westin Grand. It’s a truly remarkable place, located in Berlin’s historic centre. It oozes atmosphere and has possibly the most efficient and friendly staff I’ve ever met. The Brandenburg Gate is nearby, so too many other historic locations – the Reichstag building, the Potsdamer Platz, the Gendarmenmarkt and Museum Island. Berlin’s transformation following reunification in 1990 means that the area is also full of elegant boutiques and designer shops.

I visited another nearby famous place – Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War. While once a symbol of repression, Checkpoint Charlie is now a major tourist attraction, surrounded by souvenir stands selling all manner of tat (especially fake military items). I have to say that I wasn’t hugely impressed by this aspect – it reminded me a little of the anti-climax of visiting Land’s End – but it is nevertheless impossible not to be moved by even a fleeting visit to Berlin, replete as it is with so many landmarks of European history.

Towards the end of Saturday my visit came to an end. At Tegel Airport I experienced something unusual – German inefficiency. I managed to board my plane, which departed at 5pm, but I had cause to wish that the staff of the Westin Grand were working at the airport. The atmosphere verged on mayhem and I seriously doubted I’d get through security and make my flight, but back in Britain I was hardly consoled  by Chelsea’s 0-0 draw at QPR. By all accounts it was an even game, with my team playing effectively to secure a point. Here’s hoping that effectiveness makes for three points in the next game – and here’s to widening Gerard McDermott’s plea: it’s not just more barristers who should attend conferences like PEOPIL, it’s solicitors and everyone who cares about the future of PI law.