SPECIALIST medical negligence law firm Catherine Henry Partners has moved into new city premises having tripled its staff in recent years.
Former Newcastle Law Society president Ms Henry, the daughter of former Newcastle City councillor Margaret, said the decision to relocate from Hunter Street to 133 King Street was to accommodate her 27 staff.
‘‘We are also halfway between what will be the new court complex [near Civic] and the family court, which is ideal,’’ she says.
Raised in New Lambton Heights, Ms Henry attended Newcastle Girls’ High School which ‘‘gave girls of my age good messages about what we could do’’.
She took the advice of her father, late University of Newcastle academic Brian, to study law because it suited her argumentative nature.
Graduating from the University of NSW, she worked in Sydney in Legal Aid and lived and worked in the Northern Territory and Canberra before starting at the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission.
‘‘I really liked the territory, the consumer protection side of that job and I just found the health domain really interesting,’’ she recalls of what would become her niche.
Working on the case of Newcastle-raised, prominent Sydney orthopaedic surgeon John Bannister, who was de-registered in NSW for fraudulent conduct in 1992, only elevated that interest.
Her work on that case resulted in her being headhunted into private practice to specialise in medical negligence.
A decade later, aged 39 and at the peak of her career, her biological clock became deafening.
‘‘It was like that T-shirt [that reads] ‘I forgot to have a baby’,’’ she laughs with hindsight.
‘‘I was in a partnership at a Sydney firm [Craddock, Murray and Neumann], on the board of the Legal Aid Commission and had set up the NSW chapter of the Australian Plaintiff Lawyers Association.’’
Giving birth to her daughter changed everything.
‘‘I suppose I am like a lot of women who have babies late and have always been in control,’’ she says.
‘‘I found [motherhood] quite anxiety provoking and I missed being close to family and I wanted to have that support.’’
She relocated to her home town and set up a branch office for her employer in Hamilton.
‘‘My daughter’s first words were ‘Mummy, the DX [documents exchange] man is here’.’’ .
Later she went into partnership with John Ryan at King Street Lawyers, which had conducted plaintiff-based personal injury litigation for decades under various business names.
When Ryan retired in 2009, Ms Henry bought the firm and moved to give it a more contemporary feel, rebranding family law as ‘‘health and relationship law’’.
The firm’s core services are health and medical law, relationship law and wills and conveyancing.
Elder law, including mediation between seniors and families, is on the rise.
So too medical negligence work, with a recent report by The Herald showing Hunter New England Health has paid out almost $50million in taxpayer funds over the past three years for medical mistakes ranging from emergency department failures to major obstetrics blunders.
Ms Henry said ‘‘med neg’’ lawyers are reporting that bariatric, or weight-loss, surgery, carries the most significant legal risk.
‘‘People who aren’t experienced and think it’s a growth area will have a go,’’ she says.
Ms Henry says her firm is unique in being the only one in Newcastle that ‘‘actively specialises’’ in medical negligence cases.
‘‘I’ve always been very definitely a plaintiff lawyer, it’s where my loyalties and sympathies lie,’’ Ms Henry says, adding she offered her legal support pro bono to the activists who tried to save the Laman Street figs.
‘‘I was probably very influenced by my mother, who is a big fighter and activist.’’
Her staff, she notes, sometimes refer to her as ‘‘Causes Incorporated’’.
‘‘I may be naive, but I do believe that the litigation we do plays a role in improving standards,’’ she says.
Ms Henry is no longer involved in active litigation, rather pulling all the strings to make the firm operate to its best ability.