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More than £100m paid out in Northern Ireland legal cases for medical negligence

Published 15/10/2015

More than £100m is being paid out in Northern Ireland legal cases for medical negligence.

Between 2011 and 2014 the five health trusts settled a total of 570 cases, the BBC revealed.

The total pay-out amounts to around £109m and it is understood around a third of this was paid by the Belfast trust - which is the largest of the five.

In Wales, which has more than one million more people than Northern Ireland - £184m was paid out in medical negligence claims over the same three-year period.

In an interview with the BBC Alphy Maginness from the Department of Health's directorate of legal services defended the figures.

He said a cap system is in place to ensure barristers employed by them cannot charge excessive fees.

Mr Maginness said: "Part of the terms and conditions we agreed with the appointed barristers is that there would be a cap on fees and the cap relates not only to medical negligence actions but to other cases as well - primarily high value cases.

"So if they are worth several million, for example, the cap kicks in where they earn a certain amount."

The DUP's Paul Givan said legal fees for medical negligence were taking much needed money away from front line healths services and call for a review into how claims are managed.

Lagan Valley Assembly Member said: "In the overwhelming majority of cases people using the Health Service receive excellent care from dedicated and professional staff but unfortunately there are occasions when incidents occur that are detrimental and rightly individuals can challenge those with a duty of care to them.

"I support the right for people to seek redress, especially when the financial implications of medical negligence can have significant implications for the rest of someone's life.

"However, it is alarming that in many cases the legal fees are greater than the amount paid to individuals for the damages they suffered. The protracted legal processes involved in litigation is starving money from the health service and a fundamental assessment needs to take place to understand the drivers behind the fees paid and steps taken to reduce these legal costs."

In the most recent case, the Belfast trust paid out £8m compensation settlement to a severely disabled teenager after his family sued it for medical negligence.

The lengthy case was also defended by the Department of Health.

Mr Maginness told the BBC: "That only happens rarely.

"There can be very complex issues involved, particularly with these medical negligence actions - liability is often not clear cut.

"There may be many arguments in response to liability. You have to understand that it is not just about lawyers. In these cases we require the contributions of medical experts, forensic accountants, engineers, physiotherapists - often they are not straightforward."

According to the figures obtained by the BBC, there were 12 settlements of more than £1m across the five health trusts - eight were paid out by the Belfast Trust.

The figures also revealed that almost £3m was paid to lawyers to defend medical negligence cases on behalf of the trusts.

In one example, a settlement in the Belfast Trust, the claimant was awarded over £6,000, while legal costs amounted to almost £72,000.

Action against Medical Accidents, the patient safety charity, said the growing scale of pay-outs was of concern.

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