The Daily Mail has launched an all-out attack on law firms who represent victims of medical negligence. In a report on Saturday they described them as ‘vultures’ and ‘ambulance chasers’ who were claiming ‘grossly inflated’ fees.
These attacks are clearly designed to deter victims from seeking legal advice following blunders which can leave some patients with life changing disabilities.
The ‘report’ cites a very small number of examples of cases where lawyers have submitted claims for costs against the NHS which have subsequently been reduced by the courts. This system whereby the courts assess the amount of legal costs payable by any losing defendants has always been in existence. It is an effective way of ensuring that the loser only pays costs which are reasonably incurred.
There are however some major errors in the Daily Mail story. The headline says that lawyers ‘bleed’ the NHS for costs of pursuing claims. It then refers to the sum of £418m. On the assumption that these are costs that the NHS have actually paid, then they represent costs that the NHS have either agreed or which have been assessed by the court as reasonable. If they are agreed or assessed as reasonable then they are the real costs that have been necessary to secure justice.
And this is where the real problem lies.
Any lawyer who acts for victims can produce case after case where the NHS have steadfastly fought cases which have then settled late in the day. This year I have been involved in three cases which were heading for a trial. All three of them settled when the trial was in sight. By this stage the costs were substantial. This was because the victim had been made to fight every inch of the way. If the NHS had held their hands up and made an early admission, then the cost to the tax payer would have been massively reduced.
This point was powerfully made early this year by a former Court of Appeal judge. Sir Henry Brooke referred to two cases where the conduct of the NHSLA inflated the costs by huge sums.
“If, by way of illustration, the taxpayer had to pay £50,000 in each case more than he would have had to pay if those representing the NHSLA had behaved prudently and reasonably, that would mean that £100,000 of public money went down the drain for no real purpose. Oh dear.”
So on the one hand we see the NHS refusing to mediate and then the next minute attacking the victims’ lawyers for allegedly inflating the costs. Oh dear.
The cost of medical negligence can be reduced. It can be reduced firstly by a focus on prevention of such incidents in the first place. It can be reduced by an early admission and apology. I have been told many times by clients that they would not have considered lawyers if they had been given a full and frank explanation at the start.
I will continue to fight for victims as along as it is necessary.
If carrying the ‘vulture’ label from the Daily Mail is the price I have to pay then so be it.