Health trusts in Northern Ireland are dealing with medical negligence claims over treatment carried out as far back as the 1960s, it can be revealed.
The cost of claims in the health service is running at almost £30m a year.
Cases can take several years to settle. However, concerns have been raised around the number of historic claims.
The claims for the oldest cases of alleged negligence have been made in more recent years, as some patients may not have been aware they could take action.
Patients may also only discover alleged negligence several years after the treatment is carried out; this is known as the ‘date of knowledge’.
Clinical negligence is defined as when a patient receives substandard care from a medical professional with directly causes injury or leads to an existing condition to get worse.
Cases are brought against individual health trusts and compensation is paid out from a central fund overseen by the Department of Health.
According to the latest Department of Health statistics, a total of £21.2m was paid out in compensation to patients during the 2018/19 year, with an additional £5.8m going towards victims’ legal teams and a further £2.1m paid to health service lawyers.
Figures released to the Belfast Telegraph following a Freedom of Information request detail 10 of the longest-running negligence claims cases, based on the date the treatment in question was carried out.
The data also shows when the HSC Business Service Organisation’s Directorate of Legal Services (DLS) was notified of the claim. The DLS is the sole provider of legal services for the Health and Social Care sector here.
In one case the date of treatment was in October 1964 — more than 55 years ago. However, the DLS was not notified until August 2014. The DLS notes that no court proceedings have been issued and it is awaiting contact from the claimant’s solicitor.
It is understood that claims were not made for many years because the patients only discovered they were able to take a case decades after they received their treatment.
Another claim relates to treatment carried out in January 1974, with the DLS notified in July 2016. The DLS notes it is awaiting contact from the claimant’s solicitor. In November 2011 the DLS was notified of a claim relating to treatment provided to a patient in January 1976 and the DLS notes no proceedings have been issued, so therefore the DLS “cannot close the file”.
SDLP health spokeswoman Cara Hunter said it is “distressing” that some negligence cases involve treatment dating back more than five decades.
“I cannot begin to imagine the impact that something like this can have on a patient who may only have discovered they may have a claim decades after treatment and has been living with the impact for that time,” she said. “I am pleased that new pre-action protocols have cut the amount of time taken to resolve a case, but for too many people this is an agonising wait that is compounding their pain. I intend to raise the issue with the Health Minister at the earliest opportunity.”
Jonathan Jackson, associate director at MKB Law, said cases involving treatment going back five or 10 years are fairly common. However, those stretching back decades can be difficult to prove as the claimant has to prove that the standard of care at the time of treatment was substandard for the period it was carried out, not just considered to be below standard today. Medical professionals involved may also no longer be practising, or have passed away.
The Business Services Organisation said that, in general, clinical negligence cases now progress much more quickly than even relatively recently.
“For example, there is now a pre-action protocol which imposes time limits for investigating and responding to claims, and there is much greater case management from the courts, including regular reviews before the judges who issue directions and timetables to progress the claims,” it said.
The Health and Social Care Board said that such long-running cases are very few, so there is no additional pressure on health service resources as a result. “Whilst resolution of cases can be more difficult with the passing of time, the outcome of any case is dependent on legal processes,” it added.
The department does not have any active involvement in managing such claims, other than to provide authority for some cases over certain designated financial limits set for trusts.
Legal proceedings can be brought by children when they turn 18, even though the treatment in question relates to their birth. There is also no limit on when a person suffering from a disability can file a claim.