The British Insurance Law Association is packed with legal boffins but, to make a difference in the industry, it wants the street smarts of brokers, underwriters and loss adjusters. Katie Puckett met its chairman, Julian Burling, to find out more.

The British Insurance Law Association might have slipped under your radar. But now Bila is demanding your attention, as it puts out the call to brokers to join the solicitor-heavy group.

The association is eager to add more brokers, corporate policyholders, insurers, underwriters and loss adjusters to its line-up of 250 individual and 76 corporate members, most of whom are lawyers.

Julian Burling, Bila’s chairman, believes brokers and other professionals from the industry can play a vital role in the organisation, by helping lawyers understand the technical side of insurance.

“What we’re really keen on is getting members from the practising industry – underwriters, brokers, loss adjusters. We really need their practical input; otherwise we’re just talking theory,” he says.

Bila (Burling pronounces it “By-la”) has certainly counted on the industry’s expertise for its contribution to the Law Commission’s proposed reforms of insurance contract law. It was a Bila report on the issue that first prompted the government to ask the Law Commission to re-examine contract law.

The Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission – which are working together on the reforms – have yet to formulate their final recommendations (A summary of responses to a consultation paper on consumer insurance was published in May). But whatever the two bodies propose may become law, so it’s in insurers’ best interest to make their voices heard – and joining Bila, which costs £60 a year for individuals and more for companies, is one way to enter the debate.

The association is working to attract your attention, signing up members such as Walter Merricks, the chief financial ombudsman and a past president of Bila. The current president is even more eminent: Sir Bernard Rix, Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal.

These heavy hitters speak at Bila’s events and help the association to secure prestigious venues that would otherwise be out of reach.

The association’s lectures often cover recent decisions in the High Court, Court of Appeal or House of Lords, where members can hear from the lawyers who appeared in the cases.

The organisation also prides itself on its programme of seminars and conferences, during which distinguished names in insurance law discuss the issues gripping the industry. These events are also a handy source of continuing professional development points.

For Burling, what sets Bila apart in a crowded institutional marketplace is that it has no commercial axe to grind and no single interest to further. “We’re concerned with fostering knowledge and interest in law as it applies to insurance,” he says.

“Lots of people give excellent seminars but you either have to pay for them or they’re part of a plug for someone’s professional services.”

Bila has been around since the 1950s. Burling got involved about 15 years ago, when he moved from private practice to work in-house at Lloyd’s.

Many of Bila’s meetings are held in the Lloyd’s building and that’s how the organisation caught his attention. If you’d like to drop by, Bila’s lunchtime lectures

are open to anyone and take place six or seven Fridays a year in the Old Library at Lloyd’s.

Burling and Stephen Lewis, his vice-chairman, devote “hours and hours a week” to organising the events programme.

“We are keen on getting members from the industry. We really need their practical input.

Julian Burling

“We see our mission as keeping the market informed of current developments in English insurance law,” says Lewis, who works as a consultant at law firm Clyde & Co.

“Bila is an organisation for the market and of the market. It’s regarded as quite an eminent organisation, we put on quality events. People feel it’s an honour to be invited to speak.”

The current deputy president is Professor Rob Merkin of Southampton University, who is considered one of the most distinguished academic lawyers specialising in insurance. “We try to ensure that the presidents alternate between a judge, preferably a member of the Court of Appeal, and somebody who doesn’t practise as a lawyer,” says Burling.

But it is the committee that does the day-to-day planning. Lewis says that one of most difficult aspects is making sure the events are relevant. “We need to be aware of what is going on in the market. We have to be really topical so it’s quite difficult to plan that far ahead. We do it a few months at a time.”

Recent seminars have covered the credit crunch and hurricanes. Bila’s last half-day conference in September focused on aggregator sites – undoubtedly a hot topic. “We talked about regulatory implications, intellectual property, data protection,” says Lewis. “There’s an amazing number of legal issues with these sites.”

One evening last November, it held a mock trial before Lord Justice Rix in the Royal Courts of Justice, to argue a non-disclosure case. “We were looking at a particular situation on the basis of the existing law and as it would be if it were reformed according to the Law Commission’s proposals.

“It was absolutely fascinating. We had the maximum number you can fit in the Lord Chief Justice’s court. Mock trials are always fun. They are a lot of work for the people involved but they’re always a draw,” says Lewis.

One upcoming lunchtime lecture, scheduled for Friday 21 November, will be given by Clare Spottiswoode, Norwich Union policyholder advocate, who will make the case for distributing profits back to with-profits policyholders. It promises to be a lively debate – Lewis expects plenty of NU shareholders in the audience to put across the other point of view.

There is no entrance charge for the lunchtime lectures, but only members are given access to full transcripts of previous lectures on Bila’s website. “There’s a lot of information Bila has developed and provided to the insurance market,” says Lewis. “It’s all accessible on the website – our programme of events, the Bila Journal, all the papers.”

Burling says the committee would also welcome suggestions from members for future events: “We do like people telling us what they’d like to hear about. For example, if somebody wanted something more on aviation insurance, we would do our best to accommodate that person.”

As well as signing up more non-lawyers, Burling is keen “to get more provincial members”. To that end, Bila is planning joint meetings with like-minded organisations in Birmingham and Manchester.

It is looking further afield too, and making more of its role as the British chapter of the Association Internationale de Droit des Assurances (Aida), a global institute for insurance law. A wing called Aida Europe is being set up and Bila hopes to play an active role.

Burling is also keen to stress the social aspects of being a member. Conference dinners are always well-attended – the last was held in Lincoln’s Inn and was a sell-out.

“Those are very popular events,” he says. “In fact people often turn up to the dinners when they haven’t been to the conference. It’s a good way of entertaining clients and friends and in surroundings that you wouldn’t normally be able to get into, and there’s always a distinguished speaker.” And from the dinners to the seminar, all those events are networking opportunities.

“There’s quite a good camaraderie,” says Burling. “People tend to get to know each other and the events often turn into parties. It all sounds a bit worthy but actually it’s quite good fun.”