Health Secretary calls for an end to litigation culture in maternity cases

Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced today that he is going to begin a consultation on a new voluntary compensation scheme. The new ‘rapid resolution and redress’ scheme for victims of clinical negligence during maternity care, will, he hopes, be more transparent, settle complaints more quickly and allow medical staff to speak openly about maternity care failings and learn from  mistakes.  

Mr Hunt said he wants provide a better alternative to ‘costly’ legal processes and wants  to end the ‘blame culture’ when things go wrong in the NHS which, he believes, is inhibiting transparency.  Mr Hunt said the measures, which are yet to be published in full, will help trusts ensure courts are a ‘last resort not an automatic first step’. However, he insisted that parents who believe medical errors have caused severe damage to their children, such as cerebral palsy or brain damage, would still be able to take their cases to court if they wanted to.

Speaking at the launch of the new initiative, Mr Hunt said:

‘Our NHS maternity staff do a fantastic job under huge pressure. But even though we have made much progress, our stillbirth rates are still among the highest in Western Europe and many on the frontline say there is still too much of a blame culture when things go wrong – often caused by fear of litigation or worry about damage to reputation and careers.’

The government says the Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme could investigate and learn lessons from more than 500 cases of avoidable harm to babies, during birth, which happen each year in England. In cases where harm was avoidable, this new scheme would remove the obligation for families to launch a formal legal process and offer ‘timely access’ to financial support.  Current official figures suggest that a family’s average wait for resolution of a case is 11.5 years.

Mr Hunt also outlined plans today for a ‘safe space’ for medical practitioners to block the publication of information relating to safety inquiries. The plans would create a statutory prohibition on the disclosure of material obtained during certain health service investigations, unless the High Court makes an order permitting disclosure, or in a limited number of other circumstances. Mr Hunt said he wanted to create an atmosphere where staff learned from their mistakes and were able to talk openly and freely.  

In a written statement to the Commons, Mr Hunt said the ‘safe space’ approach is ‘designed to improve patient safety standards over time, by enabling clinicians to discuss openly and honestly their experiences, including aspects of care that ought to be improved’. He intimated that the proposed scheme will be based, in part, on the model used by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and will hopefully be in place by April 2017.

Speaking about the proposals, Peter Walsh, chief executive of the charity Action against Medical Accidents, said the government plans to eradicate mistakes should be welcomed, but added they should come with a ‘big health warning’:

‘We do not want people to feel pressurised into accepting something less than they need and deserve just to save the NHS money.’

President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Neil Sugarman, added:

‘It is critical that the right amount of compensation is made available to injured children to ensure they receive the care they desperately need.’

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