Tuesday, November 3, 1998 Published at 16:49 GMT
'Patients set for faster, fairer damages'
Experts will deal with NHS legal action
A government overhaul of medical negligence announced on Tuesday could see victims winning faster and fairer damages against doctors and hospitals.
Under a new system to start next year, legal aid to pursue medical negligence claims against hospital doctors, GPs, dentists or other clinical practitioners will only be given to accredited lawyers specialising in the area.
Although the move may lead to higher pay-outs to victims, ministers are hoping it will also save hospitals money by screening out weak claims at an early stage.
The change has been prompted by concern over the high failure rate of cases, long delays and variations in the amount of damages won for patients.
Health Secretary Frank Dobson has accused lawyers of "ambulance-chasing". Last year medical litigation cost the NHS £235m, a 17% rise on the previous year.
In cases handled by specialist solicitors, average damages awarded were around £48,500.
This compared to £25,700 for cases brought by personal injury lawyers and £18,000 for non-specialist lawyers, according to figures from the Lord Chancellor's Department.
The Legal Aid Board blamed the inexperience of some lawyers for the disparity and for figures showing that nearly half of cases ended without either a settlement or a trial, at a cost of £14 million.
In total £27m was spent on legal aid for medical negligence claims, but only 40% of the cases resulted in damages for the patient.
Geoff Hoon, Minister of State at the Lord Chancellor's Department, said expert lawyers were better able to sort out the genuine cases and pursue them swiftly, to the advantage of both claimants and health services.
He said: "This is about providing high quality specialist services to people who are extraordinarily vulnerable, at a time when they may have suffered a life-threatening condition and need to be represented by people who know what they are doing.
"If I was in that position, I would want to be represented by someone I could be sure knew how to go about it. Far too many people dabble in this area of law.
He added: "Doctors are concerned about the number of cases brought against the health service. This should ensure that only the good cases identified by specialists are brought so there are benefits all round."
But a spokesman expressed concern that not enough solicitors would be able to meet the deadline for qualifying to become accredited "med-neg" firms, leaving a shortage of people able to take up cases on clients' behalf.
Around 185 solicitors working in 131 different firms are currently on either the Law Society or Action for Victims of Medical Accidents register of specialists, the first stage of winning a Legal Aid Board medical negligence franchise.
The British Medical Association welcomed the move as one of a number of measures need to reduce the burden of unnecessary litigation on the NHS.
In a statement, it said: "However, the BMA continues to press for the introduction of a no fault compensation scheme which would protect the patient and doctor relationship by eliminating a confrontational element, and relieve the necessity to prove fault, and would base compensation principally on the injured person's needs."