Health legal bill 'hits £146m'
Northern Ireland's health service has spent more than £146 million on legal costs and compensation over the last four years, it was revealed.
In the last financial year a total of £17.5 million was used for legal costs and £21.5 million for compensation.
Belfast Health and Social Care Trust spent the most on legal proceedings, paying out around £5 million every year since 2010/11.
It is the largest of the five health trusts and operates three major hospitals in the city with a range of medical specialties for patients from across Northern Ireland.
It also runs the regional trauma centre at the Royal Victoria Hospital in West Belfast.
A recent audit office report said some departments, like obstetrics or gynaecology, tended to result in the highest compensation settlement costs, reflecting the relative risks involved. Belfast is one of the largest trusts in the UK.
According to the audit office, rates of compensation tend to be higher in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.
A total of £146.05 million was spent between 2009 and March this year, the Department of Health told Mr Allister.
It was paid out by the Department of Health, the Health and Social Care Board, the five health trusts and other health service bodies.
The Department released the figures in response to a query from Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.
"I do have to question the oversight and efficiency measures which accompany such a scenario," he said.
"Of course, anyone with a legitimate claim against a trust must be compensated, but why is the trend so much upwards - is there increasing negligence - and why are legal fees almost as high as the pay outs?"
In 2010/2011 the health service paid £26.3 million compensation.
A Health Department spokesman said: "Legal cases are now being expedited, particularly long standing negligence cases.
"The level of compensation paid in settled cases varies considerably depending on the individual circumstances of each case."
He said determining the amount of compensation payable in a personal injury claim is a judicial decision. The judge alone will have access to the medical evidence and hear from the injured party.
"Every attempt is made to manage the costs of legal cases," he added. "The directorate of legal services checks and confirms that bills of costs are properly payable and it routinely challenges the professional fees of the plaintiff's solicitors. The directorate of legal services has made significant savings in solicitors' and counsel fees over recent years.
"The judiciary in Northern Ireland are encouraging practitioners to use formal mediation as a means of resolving clinical negligence cases. The use of mediation will be led by the judiciary and the department and trusts will be required to comply with those judicial expectations.
"The increase in clinical negligence settlements has been logged in an October monitoring bid (for reallocated public money) and will be logged again in January monitoring."