Doctors are facing unprecedented increases in claims for compensation for clinical negligence, according to the head of the Medical Defence Union.

The mutual organisation, which indemnifies clinicians against claims, has revealed plans for a campaign to persuade ministers to cut the costs of damages awards.

Chris Evans, chairman of the MDU, said the rise in legal action was ‘unmatched in the company’s 126-year history’.

Writing in the organisation’s annual report, released last week, Evans states that claims in general practice alone have risen significantly for each of the past two years.

Overall, 2011 saw an increase of around 10% in the number of active claim files being managed by the MDU’s claims team, a trend expected to continue in 2012.

There was also an 18% rise in requests for MDU assistance with General Medical Council investigations, and a 56% increase in disciplinary cases against members in the hospital and primary care sectors.

Doctors and dentists made 30,000 calls to a dedicated legal advice line, with 30 claims handlers taken on – in addition to 19 existing in-house lawyers – to deal with the rising number of claims.

Jill Harding, head of claims for the MDU, denied that clinicians were to blame. ‘The increase in claim numbers is not, we believe, driven by deteriorating standards of care, or a change in the underlying type of incidents that are giving rise to claims,’ she said.

‘Many claims reported in 2011 relate to events that took place several years ago, and while we cannot know all of the reasons behind any patient’s decision to bring a claim, it seems likely that the continuing availability of no win, no fee arrangements to fund cases is a factor.’

Harding said the government’s plan to scrap the recoverability of success fees from defendants from April 2013 would help to restore proportionality to legal costs in clinical negligence cases, although the MDU is braced for a ‘high level’ of claims activity in the meantime.

Having lobbied government for changes to the civil litigation system, the focus will now come on to costs, in a year when the MDU said some individual settlements rose to more than £5m.

Chief executive Christine Tomkins said: ‘Our next campaign on behalf of members is to persuade the government to address the costs of damages awards themselves.

‘These are currently rising at a rate that exceeds wage and general inflation, and we believe this should not be allowed to continue.’