Clinical negligence claims against the National Health Service have increased by almost a third over the past year, with an extra £100 million paid out to victims of medical blunders. Nearly 9,000 patients claimed for damages after allegedly suffering at the hands of doctors or nurses, figures from the NHS Litigation Authority show.
It paid out £863m to victims of accidents in hospitals and clinics, up from £787m the year before, after settling 5,398 cases.
But a quarter of this was spent on legal costs, with £200m going to claimants’ lawyers under the system whereby so-called “ambulance chasers” can charge up to £900 an hour to pursue claims.
The litigation authority’s annual report is scathing about the current regime, which it claims is driving the “rapid growth in claims numbers” rather than any increase in mistakes by NHS staff.
Under the “no-win, no-fee” system set up by Labour so poorer people could have access to justice, known as Conditional Fee Arrangements, claimants do not have to pay for lawyers upfront. But if they win cases, the lawyers can claim big “success fees” from the defendant.
Steve Walker, chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority , said: “We believe very strongly that a regime which allows success fees and the recoverability of After the Event (ATE) insurance premiums makes litigation so profitable that solicitors and so-called ‘claims farmers’ are drawn into the market thereby fuelling the rise in claims volumes we have experienced.”
However he added that the body is “delighted” that the Ministry of Justice is acting on the Jackson review of civil litigation costs, which recommended that success fees and ATE premiums should not be recoverable in no-win, no-fee cases.
At the same time the Government hopes to save millions every year by scrapping Legal Aid in cases of alleged malpractice.
The litigation authority’s report shows that in total it recorded 12,142 claims against NHS trusts in 2010-11 but expects only 4 per cent to go to court, as most will either be settled beforehand or dropped.
Of these, 8,655 were clinical claims, up from 6,652 the previous year, and 4,346 were non-clinical, up from 4,074.A further 22,364 claims were still open at the end of the financial year.
The authority – funded partly by trusts and partly by the Department of Health directly – paid out £729m under its main clinical scheme and a further £134m under claims relating to incidents that took place before 1995.
This was an increase on £651m under the current scheme and £136m under the old schemes recorded in 2009-10.
A further £47.9m was paid out in non-clinical cases.
However these figures do not only include compensation paid to patients, staff and members of the public but legal costs as well.
The costs claimed by claimant lawyers continue to be significantly higher than those incurred on our behalf by our panel defence solicitors. This continues to be a major concern.
“The availability of Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs) and the continued increase in their use by claimants in clinical negligence claims has also meant that claimants’ costs are almost invariably disproportionate, often significantly, to the amount of damages paid, particularly in low-value claims.
“In the 5,398 clinical negligence claims closed by us with a damages payment in 2010/11, we paid over £257m in total legal costs, of which almost £200m (76 per cent of the total costs expenditure) was paid to claimant lawyers.”