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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Patient-friendly NHS claims plan
Surgeons at work
The NHS claims bill has rocketed since the mid 1990s
A faster system of dealing with NHS care complaints, without resorting to the legal system, has been unveiled.

Ministers said the NHS Redress Bill is aimed at providing a "quick and appropriate" response to "low value" negligence claims of under 20,000.

It has been designed in a bid to avoid England slipping into the US-style litigation culture and cut down on the cost of legal bills.

The new system is to be overseen by the NHS Litigation Authority.

My priority is to encourage openness and a culture that is willing to acknowledge when things have gone wrong
Health Minister Jane Kennedy

The body would be responsible for compensation awards and providing explanations and giving apologies to patients in England.

The National Assembly of Wales is still considering whether system should be extended to Wales, while the Scottish Executive currently has no intentions of taking forward proposals.

The scheme will deal with lower level claims, which will typically cover minor injuries that do not lead to permanent damage.

Patients, and the Healthcare Commission watchdog, will be able to report claims, but officials are also encouraging NHS staff to report problems.

Steve Walker, chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, said the scheme was aimed at changing the culture of the NHS.

"There is still the instinctive reaction to put the barriers up when something goes wrong. We want to change that."

Legal costs

But the government is also hoping to cut down on the legal costs.

The annual negligence bill stands at 500m for England, of which more than a third is accounted by legal costs.

While only a fraction of claims actually make it to court, it is almost unavoidable to make a negligence claim without involving solicitors.

Under the Bill, which is still to go through parliament, patients will still get independent legal advice once an offer of resolution is made.

In pilots the majority of claims were resolved in under six months, compared to the years current claims can take.

Health Minister Jane Kennedy said: "My priority is to encourage openness and a culture that is willing to acknowledge when things have gone wrong."

And she added it may lead to more minor claims. "This scheme should allow many of those at the low end of the scale of claims, who do not bother because of time it takes or cost, to pursue it."

Gary Fereday, policy manager at the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts, said he hoped it would make "the cumbersome compensation process more effective".

"Where patients are entitled to compensation, they should get it more quickly and more efficiently.

"We will work with our members to ensure that the detail of the legislation will be workable for patients and NHS organisations."

Dr Stephanie Bown, of the Medical Protection Society, a doctor support group, said: "The move away from purely financial compensation toward a more comprehensive package of redress for patients including an apology, explanation and remedial treatment is positive."

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