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Spiralling legal costs for negligence claims against GPs

By Gareth Iacobucci

The spiralling legal costs of handling clinical negligence claims involving GPs is ‘unacceptable' and must be urgently addressed, say medical defence experts.

The Medical Protection Society (MPS) said the £15 billion being set aside for claims this year, reported in the NHS Litigation Authority's annual accounts for 2010, reflected the surge in legal costs in cases they were handling, and called for action to curb excessive expense within the system.

The organisation said it had settled its four highest ever claims in the past 12 months due to escalating legal costs, two of which involved GPs, and said it was common for claimant legal costs to exceed compensation payouts.

The Government is currently reviewing the cost of clinical negligence claims through a consultation on implementing the Jackson Review and a report from Lord Young on health and safety due in the autumn.

Specifically, the MPS has urged ministers to adopt a system which:

• limits recovery of legal costs so that the amount is proportionate to the value and complexity of the claim

• sees an end to the recovery of success fees and after the event premiums from unsuccessful defendants in clinical negligence cases

• encourages the earlier resolution of claims

Tony Mason, chief executive of the MPS, said: ‘In the last 12 months MPS has settled its four highest claims, two of which have been for claims against GPs.'

‘Increased life expectancy and the cost of care packages are significant factors, but so too are high legal costs.

He added: ‘Every year we have seen a significant increase in legal costs. It is not unusual for claimant legal costs to exceed compensation payouts in clinical negligence cases.

'In some lower value cases we see costs five to ten times the value of the compensation awarded. For cases in the last five years in England and Wales where we have paid compensation of up to £100,000, claimant legal fees were more than 90% of the damages paid out.

‘In 2009 MPS settled a claim against a GP for £1,750 in compensation to the patient but the claimant's legal costs were 12 times higher at £20,500. In another claim against a GP, the patient's compensation was £7,650 yet their legal costs were £65,000 – nearly 8.5 times what the patient received.'

‘Patients deserve fair compensation, but we must do something to stem the tide of excessive legal costs.'