Litigation over Medical Negligence: We Need a Civil System to Right a Human Error; Gareth Thomas MP, Labour Member of Parliament for Clwyd West, Has Secured a Debate on Clinical Negligence in Parliament Today. the MP, Who Is Also a Barrister, Argues That the Current System of Compensating the Victims of Medical Mishaps Is in Need of Urgent Reform

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Byline: Gareth Thomas

AS a society we rightly expect and normally receive a high standard of care and treatment from the medical profession. However, accidents do happen, and when it can be established that a medical mishap is due to the negligence of a doctor or medical team member, our law has always provided a remedy via the tort of negligence. The cost of clinical negligence claims has increased greatly in recent years. For the year 2001/02 the NHS in England faced accumulated claims of pounds 4.4bn - a rise of pounds 500m over 2000. In Wales the accounting system is different. The National Assembly NHS (Wales) Summarised Accounts for 2000/01 showed a total liability of pounds 126.7m based on claims where there is a ``probable chance of the claim being settled''. This figure excludes disputed claims of some pounds 218m.

The trend has been upwards but the rate of growth has declined, in part due to steps taken by the NHS through the Welsh Risk Pool to manage risk and develop systems to prevent what health professionals call euphemistically ``adverse healthcare events'' - misdiagnosis, wrong or faulty use of anaesthetic, damage to organs in surgery, or inap propriate administering of drugs.

Many claims are settled for modest sums. The patient receives an explanation and an apology. But more serious cases can take many years to settle, and our adversarial system presents a real obstacle course for all but for the most tenacious claimant.

A 57-year-old constituent of mine recently received some pounds 2m for brain damage she sustained during childbirth 15 years earlier. The solicitor who represented her told me it was a ``titanic struggle''. It took four years to secure an admission of liability and throughout the family had to fight tooth and nail with lawyers on the other side to secure a fair settlement. The costs were considerable and, in the words of the family, ``What should have been a joyous family event was a living nightmare made even worse by having to fight all the way for every penny.''

In the debate I have secured in the House of Commons today, I will argue that although the costs of clinical negligence have increased dramatically we should not blame the lawyers. Nor do I believe it is possible to develop a ``no-fault'' compensation scheme. Those that have been introduced in New Zealand, Sweden and Finland will still require the claimant to prove fault, and operation of the schemes has been very expensive causing Governments to cut down on eligibility. …