Government urged to reduce spending of NHS funds on lawyer fees

Three quarters of the public (75%) want government to do more to reduce the amount of money lawyers are able to claim from the NHS in legal costs following clinical negligence cases, according to a YouGov survey.

The NHS paid out £1.5bn in clinical negligence costs in 2015/16, with legal costs accounting for 34% of that bill. In lower value claims it is not unusual to see lawyers’ costs exceed the compensation awarded to claimants. Eighty two per cent of the survey respondents do not agree that lawyers should receive more money in legal fees than the patient does in compensation, and 81% said they support fixed costs for lawyers which would help to keep costs down.

The survey of over 2000 adults in Britain was conducted on behalf of the Medical Protection Society (MPS) and comes as government’s consultation on a fixed recoverable costs scheme – aimed at stopping lawyers charging disproportionate legal costs – closes (1 May).

The consultation proposes a fixed cap on the legal fees that can be charged for cases up to the value of £25,000 in England and Wales, which could result in £45m savings to the NHS a year. But MPS has called on government to make a bold decision on the threshold and include cases up to the value of £250,000 – it says this would generate even greater savings to the NHS, and create a fairer system.

Emma Hallinan, director of claims at the Medical Protection Society, said: “At a time when the NHS is under increasing financial pressure, it is not surprising that so many members of the public want to see more done to tackle legal costs and keep more money in the NHS for front line care. Difficult decisions about spending in the NHS are made every day, and how we approach the spending of NHS funds on lawyer fees must be one of them.

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“In lower value claims it is not unusual to see lawyers’ costs exceed the compensation awarded to claimants. In a recent case involving a delayed diagnosis of a pituitary tumour which settled at £3,250, legal costs of £72,320 were sought. That was reduced to £24,600 after a provisional assessment last summer, which found that the bill was disproportionate.

“In another case involving a delayed diagnosis which settled for £4,000, legal costs of £35,263 were sought. This is not right. We fully support the introduction of mandatory fixed recoverable costs for claims of clinical negligence, and we understand the argument for not capping legal costs for the most expensive and complex claims, but we believe it is appropriate and viable to include claims up to £250,000.

“Disproportionate legal fees are still a significant issue for claims up to this value – setting the threshold at £25,000 would help, but the financial benefits to the NHS and the taxpayer would be greater if the threshold were set at a higher level.

“This scheme presents an opportunity to create a more proportionate, fairer system while generating significant savings to the NHS – it is an opportunity that should not be wasted. We urge government to listen to the strong views of the public and be bold when making its decision on the threshold.”