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From the military to the NHS - maybe a compensation culture is just what we need

Negligence lawyers are not so ghoulish as popular imagination makes out

Memphis Barker
Monday 24 June 2013 18:50 BST
The families of soldiers killed in the line of duty can now sue the Ministry of Defence
The families of soldiers killed in the line of duty can now sue the Ministry of Defence (AFP/Getty Images)

The sound of talons rubbing together gleefully, punctuated by bouts of maniacal laughter, must be nigh-on deafening in the negligence firms of Chancery Lane this morning. It has been a good few days for them. Not only is the British military now “open for business”, so to speak, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling declared that families can sue the army if a soldier is killed on duty, a spate of compensation claims are sure to follow Sunday’s declaration that “a rotten NHS culture” was to blame for cover-ups of appalling mistreatment in Morecambe Bay. Bloody as the work may be, the opportunities here for negligence lawyers – better known as ambulance-chasers – are legion.

That makes people uncomfortable. It will add to the fear that Britain has picked up America’s lawsuit-happy culture, where no citizen trips over their shoelaces without an attorney appearing by their side. There is some truth to the stereotype (as the proliferation of “had a fall?” advertising spells out). But the suspicion that vampyric lawyers inciting fraudulent claims are at the heart of our “compensation culture” is really only that – a suspicion (one dismissed by the only comprehensive survey of claims yet carried out). In fact, the arrival of a so-called compensation culture deserves cautious welcome.

Take the military, first. Top brass bleat that Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling will tie the army up in a cats-cradle of legal action. They paint a picture of troops kept in after nightfall in case – heaven forefend – the enemy takes a mind to try something unsafe, like shoot at them. One commentator went so far as to say the British military may be finished as a combat force. Again the anxieties aren’t ludicrous, but the truth is more prosaic. By extending European Human Rights law to cover the battlefield – a decision that came after three soldiers were killed by IEDs in Iraq while driving poorly-armoured Snatch Land Rovers – the court has simply added to the increasingly high price we place on soldiers’ lives; surely something to be applauded.

The same goes for the NHS. Citizens fork out tax for quality healthcare – they deserve redress if what they get leaves permanent damage. While it is indeed worrying that almost one-fifth of the NHS budget, some £19bn, will soon go towards paying compensation, there are two ways to reduce this. One, award pay-outs to surviving patients on the basis that they seek treatment once again on the NHS, not in private care. Two, as with the army, work harder to prevent mishaps.

Some negligence lawyers are indeed the ghouls of popular imagination. But the majority serve good purpose: giving voice to the Titcombe and Ellis families of this world who, through institutional failure, lose a child.

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