Three women who developed cervical cancer in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital screening scandal have won their right to compensation after a three-year legal battle.

Three women who developed cervical cancer in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital screening scandal have won their right to compensation after a three-year legal battle.

The Court of Appeal yesterday upheld an earlier High Court ruling that East Kent health authority, which ran the screening service, was to blame for the women's cancers. The amount of their damages has yet to be assessed.

The women had been widely expected to lose the appeal because it raised a crucial point of principle for the screening programme - that it cannot be 100 per cent accurate.

The health authority, backed by the Department of Health, spent an estimated £500,000 fighting the case despite the fact that the compensation to be awarded to the women was expected to be only £20,000 to £50,000. The trust was accused of victimising vulnerable patients but the Department of Health said it was a test case with serious implications for the screening programme.

Experts fear that the ruling will lead to defensive practice in cervical screening, with more women being referred for colposcopy - direct examination of the cervix and removal of suspect tissue.

Helen Palmer, 36, of Whitstable, Lesley Cannon, 39, from the Isle of Sheppey, and Sandra Penney, 39, of Ramsgate, had smear tests in 1989, 1990 and 1992 at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital and were told they were clear. All three later developed cervical cancer and had to have hysterectomies.

Sarah Harman,the women's solicitor, said: "Kent and Canterbury, instead of settling out of court, decided to fight these women, who have been through enough already. The amount the health authority spent at the High Court and now the Court of Appeal would have funded NHS research into cervical smear testing for a year."

The health authority was refused leave to appeal to the House of Lords but can still apply directly to take the case there. A spokesman said it was studying the judgment.

Mrs Palmer said: "I just hope that this is the end of the matter because I cannot rest until I know that we have finally won the battle."

Mrs Cannon said: "I am relieved and delighted that the Court of Appeal has upheld the High Court decision. I have waited three years for compensation and I am still waiting."

Kent and Canterbury Hospital was at the centre of Britain's biggest cervical screening scandal, which led to 91,000 smears taken between 1990 and 1995 being rechecked. An inquiry blamed poor management and said that nine women had died and 30 more had undergone hysterectomies because early signs of cancer were missed.

More than £1m in compensation has already been paid to 57 women and there are still 10 claims outstanding. The three women were among five cases in which the health authority denied liability.

All five were suffering from adenocarcinoma, a rare type of cervical cancer that is harder to detect by the screening process. The health authority settled with two of them just before the High Court hearing last February.

The remaining three won their case, despite complete disagreement among expert witnesses about whether the abnormalities in their smears were detectable, and the health authority appealed.

At the Court of Appeal, Edward Faulkes QC, for the health authority, argued that the women were victims of flaws in the national cervical screening programme and not medical negligence. He said there would always be a 5 per cent failure rate using current smear test methods and the women's results could fall within that number of false negatives.

"These three claims were regarded by all concerned as test cases," he told the appeal judges "These cases are of considerable importance, not only to the women concerned, but also to all those charged with carrying out cervical screening nationally."

Mrs Harman said after the hearing: "I do not think that the ruling will damage screening but I hope it will raise awareness. In these cases the standards of screening were unacceptable."

Mrs Palmer said: "I was let down by poor standards at the Kent and Canterbury screening laboratory in 1990 and early signs of cancer were missed but I still support the national screening programme. In 1995 the test picked up the cancer and I had an operation which saved my life. Women should have regular cervical smears but there needs to be more honesty about the test. If I had known it was not 100 per cent I would have insisted on more frequent tests."