January 17, 2012

Withy King’s campaign against Government cuts to Legal Aid influences House of Lords debate

Questions raised by Withy King on cuts to Legal Aid in cases of clinical negligence were highlighted by Lord Clinton-Davis in this week’s House of Lords debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Bill.

In a letter to Peers, Paul Rumley, a clinical negligence partner at Withy King who is staunchly opposed to the proposed withdrawal of Legal Aid from all clinical negligence cases, asked:

  • What is being done to address the increase in medical negligence in the NHS and what steps are being taken to minimise the risks and ensure patient safety?
  • What is being done to ensure the NHSLA handles litigation appropriately, settles claims quickly, makes payments when they are due and is generally fit for purpose?

These questions were presented to the House by Lord Clinton-Davis, who said: “There is no doubt that the issues raised by Withy King are complex, but they are essential. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will focus his attention of the points it has raised, which arise out of professional experience, and that is most important.”

A major element of Paul Rumley’s campaign and the debate was around the extra costs which the legal aid cuts will mean for the Government in respect of clinical negligence cases – as opposed to the intended cuts in costs. This issue was conceded by Lord Wallace of Tankerness on behalf of the Government.

Paul Rumley, who won the Bristol Law Society’s annual Outstanding Achievement Award last year for his lobbying on what he sees as the injustices of the proposed Legal Aid reforms as they affect victims of clinical negligence, and by particular reference to children born disabled as a result of negligence at the time of their birth, said: “The outcome of this week’s debate was promising with a number of Lords demanding that the proposed reforms be reviewed.

“We believe there are better ways for the Government to save money, rather than denying Legal Aid to ALL victims of clinical negligence. For example, they could achieve significant savings by bringing in a statutory duty of candour upon all Hospital Trusts and doctors to reveal and admit the causes of negligent injuries to patients to ensure claims are settled at the very first opportunity.

“If Legal Aid is removed from ALL clinical negligence cases, it will prevent some of the most vulnerable people in our society from accessing justice and will infringe the legal obligation on the State to grant its citizens not only the right to seek justice but also the means in practical terms to do so. For example, if the Government’s proposals become law, disabled children who suffered significant injuries during their mother’s pregnancy or during birth as a result of medical negligence, will no longer be able to claim Legal Aid to help them make a case for compensation.

“What is the point of having a justice system if people can’t access it? It is part of the very foundation of our state. If the Government persists with its plans to remove Legal Aid from all clinical negligence cases, there will undoubtedly be calls for a judicial review or other legal challenge to ensure the Government complies with its duties under national and European law – at significant cost.”

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Minister responding to the Lords debate, said: “We are certainly aware of concerns that the removal of Legal Aid will lead to a drop in the quality of work done on clinical negligence cases because the contractual controls imposed under legal aid rules will no longer be there […] The Government are very sympathetic to how this can be improved […] While we consider that in most clinical negligence cases funding will be available through a combination of conditional fee agreements and ATE insurance, we have always recognised that there may be obstetric injury cases with high disbursement costs, which are currently funded by legal aid but for which it may be difficult to secure conditional fee agreements.

“It would not necessarily make sense to embark on something which led to considerably greater cost when the overall object of the reforms is to reduce cost.”

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