A sharp rise in claimant costs for medical negligence cases is likely to swell calls for action to restrict legal fees. While the number of clinical negligence claims brought against the NHS in 2016/17 fell 2.5% year-on-year, claimant legal costs rose 19% from £418m to £498.5m. Defence costs increased by 5% to £125.7m, according to NHS Resolution's latest annual report.

The organisation, which replaced the NHS Litigation Authority in April, received 10,686 claims in the year, down from 10,965 the previous year. Claims numbers are now down 10% over the past three years.

However the overall costs of clinical negligence payments continued to rise, by 15% to £1.7bn in 2016/17. The increase, at a time when claim numbers fell, was explained by payments on claims from previous years.

Damages paid to claimants tipped over the £1bn mark in 2016/17, rising from £950.4m to £1.083bn. Damages made up 64% of the overall cost of claims, the same figure as in 2015/16. 

The increasing costs involved in handling clinical negligence claims will fuel calls for curbs on the costs available to lawyers, with the government currently considering a fixed costs regime.

Helen Vernon, NHS Resolution chief executive, said the figures illustrated the ongoing challenge of 'disproportionate' claimant legal costs.

The report does, however, note that the percentage of claimant costs in relation to damages, for claims worth less than £100,000, fell during the year.

The average claimant legal costs for these cases were 53.45% of the damages received, down from 54.83% in 2015/16. The percentage had previously risen every year since 2004.

In 2016/17, NHS Resolution closed 17,202 clinical and non-clinical claims brought against the NHS compared to 16,459 in 2015/16.

Claims figures peaked in 2013/14 at 11,945, falling every year since. That landmark was the first year after the Jackson reforms placed new restrictions on personal injury claims, and were thought to have encouraged some firms to move into handling clinical negligence claims.

The annual report reveals NHS Resolution failed to meet its key performance indicators in both response times to a letter of claims and the time to resolution, although this was partly attributed to 'stretching targets' adopted this year.