Law firms named in a Sunday Telegraph ‘ambulance chaser’ exposé based on costs data supplied by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) have hit back, arguing that if there was less negligence, there would be fewer claims, and that the behaviour of the authority itself is in part responsible.
Sunday’s story claimed “compensation lawyers” were in some cases “claiming costs and fees worth up to 10 times more than the damages awarded to the patients that they represent” and said the authority had called for a cap on the level of claimant lawyers’ costs.
Leeds-headquartered, 13-office national firm Simpson Millar was accused of “attempting to charge the health service up to £1,400 an hour in costs”, with total costs in one case of more than £100,000, yet “eventually accepted an offer of £30,000”.
The story quoted the NHSLA chief executive, Catherine Dixon as saying that many solicitors were ‘front-loading’ costs and incurring “a lot of cost on a case before we see it, even when the damages are very low. We’ve also seen an increasing number of poorly put together claims.”
The story calculated that patients received £438m in damages, but their solicitors were paid £196m in costs, compared to NHS lawyers who received £46m. Ms Dixon told the paper that the NHS would save £69m a year if claimant lawyers’ costs were capped at “the same level as the cost of the health service’s lawyers, plus an extra 20%”.
Simpson Millar partner and head of medical negligence, Neil Fearn, said he had investigated the £1,400-an-hour figure among the 25 people in his department “but no-one has confirmed that they have put in a bill at this level”. He couldn’t absolutely rule it out, but if true it was a “one off”, he said.
“We would not put in a bill in our normal practice at that level and accept only 30% of what we presented. That hourly rate is not one that I recognise and certainly that rate of recovery is absolutely not one that I recognise.”
Mr Fearn said the firm would “normally expect to recover somewhere in the region of 70-75%”. He added: “We go to great lengths to ensure that we don’t over-egg the case, that we are doing the work necessary to get the result for the client in very difficult circumstances”.
He complained that “what seems to be missing is that behind these claims are injured people, injured at the hands of the doctors and nurses employed by the NHS and defended by the NHSLA.”
The Sunday Telegraph acknowledged the NHSLA provided it with “a list of the law firms whose claims for costs have been significantly reduced following negotiations or court action”. Litigation Futures obtained a copy of the list, which covered 10 firms’ cases settled between 1 January 2010 and 31 January 2014, including the number of cases handled, costs claimed, costs settled, and a “costs saved” calculation as a percentage.
Simpson Millar did not appear on the list. An NHSLA spokeswoman confirmed that while the list was “aggregated”, the information quoted about the firm’s alleged hourly rate “was in relation to a single claim”.
The firm appearing third on the aggregated list, Express Solicitors in Manchester, was accused in the article of having claimed “£1.4m in costs for 30 cases since 2010. The costs have been reduced to £779,063 after negotiations”. On the list, the “costs saved” were represented by the NHSLA as 47.11%.
James Maxey, managing partner of Express Solicitors, said in a response submitted yesterday to the Sunday Telegraph’s letters page that he had “spent too much time with the families and victims of clinical negligence” to take ambulance chasing jokes “in good humour” any longer.
He described Ms Dixon’s claims about front-loading costs as “preposterous”. If “more admissions were forthcoming in the early days of a claim”, costs would be reduced. He accused the NHSLA of being “worse than most insurance companies at replying to requests for information for even the simplest of disclosure”.
He continued that “delays impact upon the progress of the case, and can lead to further costs being incurred if it becomes necessary to issue proceedings”, adding: “Arguments on costs always follow but if the NHS simply complied with the rules, costs would be considerably lower and cases would reach conclusion more swiftly.”