The Government has launched a consultation on proposals for a Rapid Resolution and Redress (RRR) scheme for NHS birth injury cases, which it says could speed up the claims process and help the NHS improve its safety record on maternity wards.
The Department of Health says that the RRR scheme could investigate and learn lessons from more than 500 incidents a year. In cases where harm was avoidable, the scheme would offer access to financial support without the current obligation on families to launch a formal legal process.
Eligible families would be given the option to join an alternative system of compensation that offers support and regular payments without the need to bring a claim through the courts and the scheme would ensure families receive personalised support including counselling, case management and legal advice.
A similar scheme operating in Sweden has reduced serious avoidable birth injuries by around 50% in the last 6 to 7 years.
In the UK at present, the average time families have to wait for resolution of a case is 11.5 years.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the UK’s stillbirth rates were still amongst the highest in Western Europe and that many on the frontline were saying there was still too much of a blame culture when errors occur – often caused by fear of litigation or worry about damage to reputation and careers.
“These comprehensive measures will give practical support to help trusts improve their approach to safety – and help to foster an open and transparent culture so that the courts become a last resort not an automatic first step,” he said.
“By learning from proven methods in countries like Sweden we hope to achieve a dramatic reduction in the number of tragedies where babies are lost or injured for life.”
Helen Vernon, chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, said: “Learning from what goes wrong is the key to reducing the growing costs of claims. We have been working closely with the Department of Health to develop a new approach to compensating babies who suffer brain injury at birth so that learning to be shared quickly. We therefore wholeheartedly support the announcement today of a consultation on proposals for RRR which will deliver support to families from the start without the need to begin a formal legal process.”
Neil Sugarman, the President of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), welcomed the news, but cautioned that fast-track compensation must also be the right amount of compensation for babies injured at birth.
“Compensation for these catastrophic injuries has a very clear purpose and, in these cases in particular, it is critical that the right amount of compensation is made available to injured children to ensure they receive the care they desperately need,” he said.
He added that as the details of the consultation were still to be seen, APIL would be reminding the Department of Health that children suffering cerebral palsy and brain damage at birth needed round-the-clock medical care, specialist equipment and support for the rest of their lives.
“The fact that the number of claims for these injuries has barely changed in the past ten years is a national scandal, and we welcome any attempt to improve this situation and the legal process which families have to navigate,” he said.
“But not at any price.”
The head of marketing at First4Lawyers, Andy Cullwick, said: “It is great to see that the Department of Health is trying to be more open to resolve cases in a quicker timeframe. This should not only help improve the health service moving forward but reduce the suffering caused by families involved.
“It is shocking that families have to wait up to 11 years to resolve cases, and perhaps this is the real reason that the cost of medical negligence is rising so much.
“Parents should still seek legal advice before accepting compensation for damages to ensure a true and fair settlement is reached for the future care of their child.”