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GPs not to blame for increase in negligence claims

Medical Defence Union blames ‘no win no fee' legislation and calls for urgent legal reform

Ingrid Torjesen

Friday, 15 January 2016

GPs are definitely not to blame for the increasing numbers and costs of negligence claims, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) says.

A wide variety of factors are the cause, and in particular legal changes to ‘no win no fee’ arrangements in April 2013, the defence body said in written evidence about indemnity for the parliamentary Health Committee into primary care. These legal changes led to 20% more claims funded by these conditional fee arrangements in 2012 and 2013, and the number of claims continued to rise during 2014.

Dr Michael Devlin, head of professional standards and liaison at the MDU, said: “GPs are definitely not to blame for the dramatic increase in claims. The rise is a result of many factors which GPs can’t influence, yet this is an issue which affects them personally, professionally and financially. The main reason is the legal changes to ‘no win no fee’ arrangements which led to a surge in cases. Other factors include the worsening economic climate and a general environment that promotes litigation over resolving concerns through alternative routes.”

The increase in frequency and size of claims has resulted in an inflation rate of 10% a year for the last few years. It is no longer unusual for claims involving GPs to settle for more than £5 million. The MDU’s highest payment on behalf of a GP was £7.5 million following missed diagnosis of subarachnoid haemorrhage and in another case £6.5 million (plus £300,000 costs) was paid for missed diagnosis of meningitis in a 6 month old infant. 

Dr Devlin said: “It is telling that at the same time as claims numbers have increased, so has the number of claims that the MDU successfully rebuts. In 2015 the number of claims we defended without settlement increased from 70% to 80%. This means the great majority of claims against GPs are without merit and that number is rising. While this should be comforting to GPs going through the stress of responding to a negligence claim, the costs of investigating and responding robustly to the increasing number of claims, as well as paying compensation in the minority of cases settled, are shouldered by our members via their subscriptions. Worse, unless the government takes swift action there is no sign that things will improve.”

The MDU believes urgent legal reform is needed. Dr Devlin said: “The only workable solution to the current problem of rising indemnity subscriptions is for the government to introduce a package of reforms to the way compensation is awarded. This is something we have seen put in place as an effective solution to indemnity crises in other parts of the world such as in some US states and Australia. Patients who are negligently damaged must be compensated, but the current system is unsustainable for GPs and for the NHS more widely. The reforms the MDU advocates would see patients compensated appropriately but in a fairer and more affordable way.”

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