Trust boss hails cap on legal costs

Wigan's NHS Trust boss Andrew Foster
Wigan's NHS Trust boss Andrew Foster

Wigan’s health chief has welcomed new government plans to cap legal fees in clinical negligence cases to stop “unscrupulous” lawyers charging excessive costs.

Cash-strapped NHS services are being hit with huge bills from so-called ambulance chasers who cream off payments that are up to 80 times higher than the damages they secure for clients.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is imposing a fixed cap on all cases up to £25,000 in England and Wales, which is expected to save the health service £45m a year.

He said: “It’s important that when significant mistakes happen in the NHS, patients are able to have an open dialogue with a trust about what went wrong, receive reassurance of what is being learnt, and can discuss what form of recompense or redress may be appropriate. Legal action should only be one part of this process.

“Unfortunately, what we often see in lower cost claims is a deeply unfair system where unscrupulous law firms cream off excessive legal costs that dwarf the actual damages recovered.

We believe this creates an adversarial culture of litigation, which is inflating insurance premiums and drawing away resource from the NHS at a crucial time.”

Lawyers in one compensation case claimed £83,000 in legal costs despite the patient being awarded just £1,000.

Clinical negligence costs in the NHS in England rose from £1.2bn in 2014/15 to £1.5bn the following year. Legal costs accounted for 34 per cent of the 2015/16 bill. The cases are often fought on a no-win, no fee basis.

The Government is consulting on the rates that should be set under the new system, as well as the transitional arrangements that will be put in place.

Andrew Foster, chief executive at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The introduction of a fixed recoverable cost for lower value claims would support more proportionate payment to claimant lawyers - which alongside improvements to the system should make things quicker and better for patients.

“This seems fair and appropriate recognising this all comes out of the NHS pot. Less money spent on legal costs will mean more to put into improved patient care at a local level.”

Emma Hallinan, director of claims at the Medical Protection Society, said: “The cost of clinical negligence risks is becoming unsustainable for the NHS and society. In lower value claims it is also not unusual to see lawyers’ costs exceed the damages awarded to claimants - this is simply not right.”