How often have legal commentators called for steps to be taken to reduce the number of medical accidents that lead to claims for damages? The tendency has been to blame victims and their lawyers for the spiralling costs of litigation; particularly in cases where babies suffer catastrophic injuries at birth.
It is encouraging therefore to see reports in today’s press that the Ministry of Health may finally be getting the message. Details will be set out in a speech from Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt. The government proposes to publish maternity ward league tables as part of a drive to improve performance. It remains to be seen what that, on its own, will achieve. But at least it is a step in the right direction.
Jeremy Hunt will also announce a voluntary scheme for resolution of claims for damages. The scheme will involve a panel of medical and legal experts who will review incidents and decide whether payments are appropriate and, it seems, assess how much will be paid.
Again this has to be welcomed. Details of the content of the speech appear in the Guardian report and there are still comments that cause concern. The speech will refer to the need to dismantle a ‘litigation culture’. I have acted for a number of families in these cases. There has not been a single occasion where ‘litigation’ was of any interest. Families want answers to questions. They want accountability and they want financial help as they care for a child who will have life long needs.
Litigation is always a last resort as the NHS have tended to fight cases until the last minute –
The speech will refer to litigation as ‘an automatic first step’. There already exists a protocol under which Trusts have 4 months, or longer if necessary, to investigate incidents. Litigation only follows when liability is denied. It is far from being a ‘first step’. There still seems to be an underlying assumption that victim and their lawyers are looking for litigation.
So there are still negative attitudes that need to be ironed out. Describing lawyers as ‘vultures’ does not help!
On the other hand these proposals could change everything. If we begin to see a genuine will on the part of the NHS to acknowledge fault and work with families, if we see a real commitment to reducing or even eliminating negligence, if we see a desire to listen to the families of victims, then we might finally see some real progress.
I really hope that this leads to a new culture of co operation with the needs of disabled children at the centre.