Legal costs bleed NHS

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DOCTORS have called on the Government to help reduce the massive legal bills faced by the National Health Service, which drain resources away from the treatment of patients.

An estimated pounds 200m a year is spent defending medical negligence cases, many of them legally-aided actions from which hospitals can recover no costs.

Also, there are tens of millions of pounds in "hidden" costs, such as administration and medical staff's time, and an estimated pounds 1bn liable in outstanding legal claims.

While average settlements are between pounds 10,000 and pounds 15,000, the legal costs incurred can be four times that amount. And in 83 per cent of legally- aided cases the plaintiffs lose, but the NHS cannot claim their costs against these clients.

Representatives of the British Medical Association and Medical Defence organisations met senior officials at the Lord Chancellor's Department to press for a no-fault system to cover most complaints.

BMA secretary Dr Mac Armstrong, who was at the meeting, said that the bulk of such actions should be dealt with in a non-adversarial system. "Justice is best served by openness and sharing [of information]," he said.

Dr Armstrong said the current system was simply using up money which should be diverted to helping patients. He added: "There are also the uncounted costs to the doctors who face the trauma of substantial pre- trial procedures - even if they win."

However, doctors recognise that some difficult cases do need to come to court to test important issues and may need public funding. They are therefore hostile to the Government's initial plans to scrap legal aid.

Following the meeting with doctors, there are further signs that ministers may be prepared to seek a compromise - possibly by retaining legal aid for certain cases - in the emotive area of medical negligence.

Plans to run all such actions under a conditional no-win-no-fee basis were "simplistic", said Dr Armstrong. "We would have the worst of all worlds." Doctors would still face a lengthy pre-trial process and the more complicated, possibly most deserving cases, might never be brought.

He said the officials were sympathetic to the no-fault proposals and also to concern about removing public funding for medical cases.