Medical negligence cases to be quicker

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PLANS THAT will restrict medical negligence litigation to a list of 150 firms of approved solicitors are expected to get the go-ahead today.

At its meeting with the Lord Chancellor today, the Legal Aid Board will outline a timetable and arrangements for the move, which would mean that only those lawyers on the list would get legal aid to fight medical negligence cases.

It is hoped this will end the growing concern about victims of medical negligence spending years not getting anywhere because they went to a solicitor who was not a specialist.

In its meeting, the Legal Aid Board is expected to cite the case of Penny Mansel, whose son Sam was awarded a record pounds 3.28m for brain damage caused by lack of oxygen at birth. She spent five years trying to get compensation before arriving at specialist lawyers Alexander Harris in Manchester.

Under the Legal Aid Board timetable, solicitors will be able to apply for a medical negligence franchise from 2 November. From next August only firms who have shown competence will be able to qualify for legal aid.

"We have been working extensively with the profession to get it right and the meeting ... with the Lord Chancellor is to outline our final arrangements.

"The Lord Chancellor will then move to put the regulations in place, which will make having a franchise contract a requirement for legal aid, and that should come into force on February 1," Louise Collins, of the Legal Aid Board, said.

From February, it is expected that about 2,000 firms, most of whom are involved in personal injury cases, will qualify. But by August that is expected to reduce.

"After August we think there will be about 150 firms. We have carried out our research and we think that number of firms can handle the capacity," said Ms Collins.

The plan comes as a survey from the Medical Defence Union, the doctors' defence society, shows that half of all claims for medical negligence against GPs result from delays in diagnosis.

Over two years, the MDUsaid it had paid compensation totalling pounds 9.4m in damages and legal costs to settle 186 claims against GPs resulting from delays. The biggest single payment of almost pounds 1m was made to a baby who suffered brain damage after a GP had failed to diagnose meningitis.

The high sum reflects the cost of providing long-term care. But there was also one payment of more than pounds 500,000 to an adult following a delay in diagnosing a heart attack.

Dr Stephen Green, the report's author, said the three most common medical areas associated with delays in diagnosis were injuries involving damaged bones or trapped nerves, infections such as malaria, and cancer.

The survey highlights one of the most common reasons for claims: "While it is not necessarily negligent to fail to make a diagnosis, many claims were settled because GPs failed to examine the patient properly, or their follow-up procedures were inadequate," said Dr Green.