MPs demand change after claims for NHS negligence top £4bn

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The Independent Online

The way the health service deals with claims for clinical negligence is condemned by MPs today as astronomically expensive, unacceptably slow and lacking in compassion towards patients.

The way the health service deals with claims for clinical negligence is condemned by MPs today as astronomically expensive, unacceptably slow and lacking in compassion towards patients.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee raises severe concerns over the soaring value of medical negligence claims, which last year saw the NHS facing liabilities of £4.4bn in England alone.

MPs say past failures in the system have left a huge backlog of unresolved claims for errors and accidents in hospitals. Up to 23,000 cases were outstanding in March 2000, which could potentially cost £3.9bn, and the liabilities rose again to £4.4bn by March of last year.

Claims were taking an average of five and a half years to resolve, compared with two to three years in Scotland and Wales, while 8 per cent of cases took more than 10 years to conclude. The cumbersome system meant that in 65 per cent of settlements below £50,000, legal costs exceeded the sums paid to claimants.

Edward Leigh, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, called for an end to the fiasco. "Patients suffer delay and an almost systematic lack of compassion. Often they are effectively cornered into pursuing litigation and in more than six out of 10 smaller-value cases the legal costs outweigh the compensation paid. Patients and the taxpayer are crying out for a more intelligent approach," he said.

The annual cost to the NHS of settling medical negligence claims has risen sevenfold since 1995. Because of the cost and unpredictability of pursuing a claim, few claimants pay their own costs and more than 70 per cent receive legal aid. But only a quarter of publicly funded claims are successful, the MPs note. Cerebral palsy and brain-damage baby cases account for 26 per cent of the outstanding claims in terms of numbers, but 80 per cent in terms of value.

Some changes have been made to speed up the processing of claims, the MPs say, but many patients who have suffered injury still face "a long and difficult process" pursuing damages. "The way many trusts mishandle the tension between the complaints and claims procedures means patients can too easily and too quickly find themselves in a position where they seek legal remedies," the MPs say.

The Department of Health is expected to announce the results of a review of clinical negligence later this year.

But the MPs say the most immediate requirement is to reduce the number of errors. Patients should be offered a range of remedies and the benefits of no-blame solutions ought to be considered.