Legal teams get £36,000 for every £15,000 given to patients in negligence claims

The cost of fighting clinical negligence claims against the NHS is soaring and most of the payouts are going in the pockets of lawyers, figures show.

In one case, a law firm received 58 times as much as the victim. In each of the past five years there have been examples of lawyers receiving more than 10 times the sum paid to the victim in compensation.

There have been 52,000 clinical negligence claims over the past five years which have cost the NHS more than £8bn. More than one in 10 – 5,500 – has resulted in a legal bill bigger than the victim's payout. On average lawyers received £36,000 per case last year whereas victims received £15,000.

The figures were obtained by the Tories in response to parliamentary questions. Shadow Health minister Mark Simmonds said: "Taxpayers will be rightly angry that hundreds of millions of pounds of their money is being paid out for mistakes in the NHS and that in many cases lawyers get their hands on more of the compensation money than the patients.

"The Government could have saved significant sums of money if they had listened to our proposals for an initial fact finding stage before a case comes to court. This would have resulted in more cases being resolved without costly litigation, and there would have been more money for frontline patient care."

The biggest disparity between the legal fees and the compensation paid out came in a case in 2005-6 where the victim received £1,750 and the law firm representing them was paid £102,334.

In a case the following year, the victim received £5,000 and the law firm representing them was paid £101,082.85.

The figures show that legal costs are rising faster than levels of compensation. In one in five cases, lawyers receive more than the victim compared with one in seven cases five years ago.

Over the past five years, the NHS has spent £700m on fees to lawyers for clinical negligence claims. Almost half (48 per cent) of the total compensation paid now goes on lawyers fees compared with 35 per cent five years ago.

NHS trusts employ 300 lawyers and managers to deal exclusively with negligence claims at a cost of £10m a year, according to figures revealed in response to a Freedom of Information request.

Ministers are concerned about the disproportionate costs of litigation involving all government departments, especially where the claim is for a small sum and the legal costs dwarf it. Lord Justice Jackson was appointed to review civil litigation costs and his report is due for publication on 14 January 2010.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Most of the millions of people treated by the NHS every year experience good quality, safe and effective care. However, if patients do not receive the treatment they should and mistakes are made, it is right that they are compensated and have access to legal representation. We are committed to working more closely with stakeholders, such as the NHS Litigation Authority and Ministry Justice, in order to manage litigation costs."