NHS lawyers have now joined the opposition to the government’s proposals to axe Legal Aid for the victims of medical accidents.
They cite 2 grounds. First, costs paid by the NHS on Legal Aid cases are low – patients switching to ‘no win no fee agreements’ would actually cost the NHS more. In their words the change would ‘undoubtedly cause NHS legal costs to escalate massively’. These are strong words. They put the lie to those stories we read in the papers suggesting that Legal Aid is the goose that lays the golden egg for solicitors. In fact it funds on a pared-down, low budget service.
The reality is that lawyers wanting to do their job properly end up doing work for which they will not be paid. The implication of what the NHS lawyers say is that even they accept that Legal Aid costs the NHS little. But now even they agree that cuts aimed to save money will actually do the opposite.
Secondly, they are concerned some of the most vulnerable of those injured by negligent medical treatment will not get justice. Many of these are brain-damaged babies. If anyone needs protection surely it is them?
However as the NHS lawyers say, complex, high value claims are not particularly suitable for ‘no win no fee agreements’. Insurers who need to back the claims do not like them – they are high cost and high risk. Many solicitors could also not take on the high risk they entail.
Only a small proportion of NHS patients are injured by negligent treatment - most of our medical care is excellent. However people who suffer injury and disability from unjustifiable mistakes are entitled to redress.
One of the marks of a decent society is that the legal system gives them that right. Legal Aid is a way of making sure that even the most vulnerable can get access to justice.
I can see virtually no support for the proposal to take that away. Even the NHS now fears that it will be an expensive way of creating greater injustice for the most vulnerable.
Paul Sankey is a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence.
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