The Department of Health is planning to fix costs for clinical negligence claims worth up to £25,000, it has emerged, a change of heart which has received a 'cautious welcome' from the Law Society.
Chancery Lane warned however that any changes are premature in the absence of supporting evidence.
Minutes from the 8 July meeting of the Civil Procedure Rules Committee state there has been a ‘change of policy’ at the department and ministers intend to consult on claims up to the revised figure.
Amanda Stevens, chair of the Civil Procedure Rule sub-committee (CPRC) tasked with drafting court rules for fixed recoverable costs in clinical negligence cases, said the new threshold would take in up to 60% of cases.
Stevens said the material worked up by the subcommittee on a draft protocol and illustrative rules would be amended accordingly, although the date of the consultation on fixed costs is still unknown.
That consultation was first proposed more than a year ago when stakeholders were first canvassed for their opinions on the level at which fees should be fixed.
The issue has come to the forefront in recent weeks, with sections of the media launching a campaign to bring down claimants’ costs against the NHS.
The Department of Health today insisted no final decision on the proposed threshold has been made, and the issue of a limit will be one of the questions in the consultation.
Ministers are understood to want to implement changes as soon as possible once the consultation is complete.
Responding to last year’s ‘pre-consultation’ on cutting costs in negligence claims, the Law Society stressed that it does not oppose the principle of fixed costs provided they are set at a reasonable rate and apply only to genuinely low-value and straightforward claims where there is an admission of full liability.
‘Cases above [£25k damages] are almost certainly going to have levels of complexity that make fixed fees inappropriate and unfair,’ the Society warned.
Commenting on the CPRC minute, Chancery Lane issued a 'cautious welcome' for what would be a significant 'change of heart' by the DoH. But the Society warned any change would still be premature.
Chief executive Catherine Dixon commented: 'We are pleased the [DoH] has recognised that fixed costs set for higher-value claims would limit access to justice and could stop many people who are entitled to claim compensation for being harmed through no fault of their own from seeking compensation. However, we remain of the view that any changes are premature, as the impact of earlier changes which will significantly reduce costs, have not been assessed.
'We are concerned that the current proposals lack the evidence to support the case for further change or cost reductions.'
Dixon added: 'Even with this lower limit, patients harmed in hospital could be denied the compensation they are entitled to in law if fixed recoverable costs are introduced for complex clinical negligence claims or if the level of fixed cost is set too low.
'There is a serious risk that those most affected would be the vulnerable in society, such as the elderly and people who are disabled, whose cases can be complex and challenging but not necessarily the highest in value.'