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Monday, 30 June 2014

Doctors and Cancer Treatment - naming, shaming and missing the point

A failure to diagnose cancer can have catastrophic consequences.

The most tragic case that I am currently handling relates to a woman in her 30s whose bladder cancer was missed despite numerous attendances at both her GP surgery and her local hospital. She died on Good Friday last year leaving 2 young children –

I commented at the time that in all of my years in practice I had rarely come across a case that made me more angry and upset. We all feel the same when we come across these avoidable tragedies. As a lawyer I want to do all I can to ensure that the family get justice. But as a society we also want to do all we can to ensure that it never happens again.

The Ministry of Health had acknowledged the problem of failed cancer diagnoses. According to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the answer is to name and shame doctors who are at fault. There is also talk of ranking doctors and hospitals by reference to the speed of diagnosis –

This move is likely to achieve little or nothing. In fact it is likely to make matters worse. We all know what will happen. We have seen it with most ‘league tables’. Doctors will be forced to concentrate on improving their stats. So there will be a huge rise in referrals to clinics that are already under huge pressure. There will, of course, be no corresponding rise in funding. The Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, a conservative MP says –

"I don't want to see any reduction in services. I would like to see further improvements and that will require an increase in funding."

This is the real answer. Adding further pressure to the medical profession is not an answer. It might provide populist headlines but it will not save lives.

It is extremely frustrating to hear these statements from a government which has made it far more difficult for victims to pursue cases for justice. In April 2013 Legal Aid was abolished for almost all Clinical Negligence cases. So victims have to find a lawyer who will pursue a case on a no win no fee basis; which normally involves that lawyer having to bankroll the expenses of the case that can run into thousands. This is already pressurising some law firms to significantly reduce their intake of cases. Some will have to leave the market altogether. And those very lawyers are then attacked by the medial for feeding the mythical compensation culture –

The rhetoric is always that ‘times are tough’ and that ‘we are all in it together’. But these tragic cases which devastate peoples lives should be a priority – certainly as against the cost of nuclear submarines! The government needs to ensure that surgeries and clinics are properly funded. They cannot simply starve them of resources and then blame them when things go wrong.

Politicians seem more concerned about headlines. Naming and shaming will sell newspapers but at what cost?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Social Media and Lawyers - how is it for you?

A recent report has praised the use of Twitter by major City Law Firm, Pinsent Mason –

Now it is fairly obvious that anyone reading this has at least some knowledge of Social Media. But which is the most popular and of the most use to lawyers? 

I use the four most obvious platforms although each seems to contribute something different.

Twitter is what I have tended use the most for business and marketing. Its 140 character limit can be a bit frustrating but it can also be a great discipline to say something meaningful in just a few words – especially for lawyers! You only have to look at the response to SeƱor Suarez’ latest dental adventures to see how quickly a message can spread –

So if you want to get something across briefly and quickly then it has to be Twitter. It is certainly the most effective way of presenting and promoting blog posts!

Facebook, on the other hand is more personal and homely. You tend to know who are interacting with, at least in a social media sense. So I would expect more dialogue on Facebook; more chat about culture and sport but less about business. So, I probably use FB the least for business. By the way I bought a great fridge magnet in France last week – ‘Facebook is like a fridge – you know there is nothing in there but you still check it every 10 minutes’.

So what about LinkedIn? I have been on there for about 3 years and I do like the way it tells me that my connections potentially link me to 15,259,305 people which is approaching twice the population of Austria! I have found it very useful to join its interest groups and have probably made more direct business contacts on here than anywhere else. But isn’t very ‘friendly’ to use. I find myself looking to see who might be on there but will then see if they are on twitter or even email. And I do find it disconcerting to see that someone in the USA has endorsed me for Estate Management or Attorneys!

But the most interesting platform, at the moment, for me is Google+. To be honest I am still getting my head around it. But I find it is user friendly, lively and useful for both business and personal contacts. I am as comfortable posting holiday photos to my circles as I am looking for business contacts or posting links to this blog. This has definitely been helped by the UK Connect: Grow Your Own Network started by Donna Beckett of @beckettandco . If you haven't yet signed up I would recommend you give it a go. The sheer scale of it is a bit overwhelming at first but you soon get used to it.

So I will still instinctively go to Twitter but G+ is closing in.

I would be interested in hearing your views!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Access to Justice - LiP Service!

Yesterday I attended a meeting at Liverpool County Court with advisers, lawyers and Senior Judiciary. This was all about the growing problem of how we can best assist Litigants in Person.

When the government announced its devastating cuts to Legal Aid in 2013 many of us predicted a massive growth in the number of those bringing or defending cases without any legal representation. In a report in 2011 the Civil Justice Council said –

‘It is a reality that those who cannot afford legal services and those for whom the state will not provide legal aid comprise the larger part of the population of England and Wales. Thus for most members of the public who become involved in legal proceedings they will have to represent themselves.’ Access to Justice for Litigants in Person 2011.

What this does not say is that such litigants will often be opposed by public bodies or insurers with very deep pockets to pay expensive legal fees. And the legal process is more than just a maze. It is a minefield.

These unrepresented litigants are increasingly dependant on help from court staff who themselves have seen cuts in funding and can, in any event, only do so much. The burden is also taken on by voluntary agencies. They do a stalwart job. One advice worker in Liverpool advises hundreds of people facing debt cases virtually on her own and with diminishing resources. I have said before that Access to Advice at this level is a waste land –

The government has deprived ordinary people of the right to funded legal advice and, at the same time, squeezed the life out of those other agencies that were able to help. There are many solicitors and barristers who will advise litigants without charge. But in a climate of heavily reduced fees and record closures of law firms, there is only so much that they can do.

The problem has recently been summed up by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas –

“…lawyers should not forget that in the present day litigation seems almost out of reach for those on modest incomes and many SMEs”.’

Lord Thomas hopes that a move towards fixed legal fees might improve the situation. Alongside this there is the move towards unbundled legal services whereby legal advice and help is provided at key stages throughout a case at a fixed charge –

I’m afraid that I do not share his optimism. For those on lowest incomes, including some who are very vulnerable even a fixed fee is way beyond their reach.

What we need is a firm commitment from politicians to a reinstatement of properly funded legal assistance to those in greatest need. 

There is no point in having a justice system if people do not have access to that system regardless of wealth. This needs to be brought to the top of the agenda as we move towards a 2015 election.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Workplace Accidents - extending the 'compensation culture'.

The Insurance Industry, the media and certain politicians have brought into existence a very effective myth – The Compensation Culture. We are led to believe that this ‘culture’ is out of control and is responsible for many of society’s ills, including high insurance premiums. These two words have become so widely used that many people now take for granted –

  1. That it exists,
  2. That it needs to be stopped,
  3. That it is largely the fault of lawyers.

But it is indeed a myth.

The Master of the Rolls, one of the country’s senior judges, acknowledged this in a speech in March 2013. He referred to ‘media created myths’ He went on to say –

‘All of this may also require a substantive educative effort on the part of government, the courts and the legal profession to counteract the media-created perception that we are in the grips of a compensation culture.’

The government has showed little appetite for dispelling the myth. In fact they have been happy to promote it in order to help their insurance company friends.

The myth has been effectively used to attack victims of motor accidents. 

Now it seems that it is to be extended to those who have accidents at work or who suffer work related illnesses. The Telegraph has recently reported claims by AXA that businesses are victims of – ‘fraudulent injury compensation claims by an employee’. They cite one example! 

The reality is that a tiny minority of those who suffer from work related accidents or illnesses, actually pursue compensation claims. One government report says that 85% of those injured at work are not compensated. Recent changes in the law have made it much harder for victims to pursue cases against their employers. Many simply don’t want to do it for fear of losing their jobs.

This is a worrying development. There is no such thing as a compensation culture. It is a fiction. The insurers have used it with great effect to attack victims of car accidents. Now, it seems, they have their sights fixed on a new group of victims.

There is a clear risk that we could indeed revert to Victorian days when it was virtually impossible to obtain justice for a work related injury. The development of Health and Safety Regulations, alongside the right to claim against careless employers has saved thousands of lives in industry over the last fifty odd years. This cannot be allowed to change.