Northern Ireland

NI health services spend £146m on legal cases over four years

Jim Allister
Image caption Jim Allister said he was "astounded" by the figures released to him by the Department of Health

Northern Ireland's health service has spent more than £146m on legal costs and compensation over the last four financial years, it has been revealed.

It was paid out by the Department of Health, the Health and Social Care Board, the five health trusts and other "arm's length" health service bodies.

The Department of Health released the figures in response to a query from the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party.

TUV leader Jim Allister said he was "astounded" by the spending levels.

Mr Allister submitted his query in a written assembly question to Health Minister Edwin Poots.

The North Antrim MLA asked for an annual breakdown of the money spent on legal proceedings and compensation within the local health service.

Most expensive

Mr Poots' department revealed that in the last financial year alone, Northern Ireland's health services spent £17.5m on legal costs and £21.5m paying out compensation.

Across all four financial years for which figures are available, the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust consistently spent the most on legal proceedings.

It has paid out an average of almost £5m every year since 2009/2010.

The Belfast trust is the largest of the five health trusts and it operates three major hospitals in the city.

It also runs Northern Ireland's regional trauma centre, within the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital.

The most expensive period for compensation claims was the financial year 2010/2011, when the local health service paid out a total of £26.3m.

'Dramatic increase'

In a statement, Mr Allister said: "I am astounded to discover, through probing by an assembly question, that last year our local health service spent almost £40m on litigation - £17.5m on legal costs and £21.5m on paying out compensation.

"This £40m spend is a dramatic increase of 60% from just three years ago when the spend was £25m.

"I note within these figures that the Belfast Trust is by far the biggest spender accounting for almost one third of the spend. It is also noticeable that the department's own legal costs have tripled in just three years."

The TUV leader added: "I do have to question the oversight and efficiency measures which accompany such a scenario.

"Of course, anyone with a legitimate claim against a trust must be compensated, but why is the trend so much upwards - is there increasing negligence - and why are legal fees almost as high as the pay-outs?"

A Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) spokesman said: "Legal cases are now being expedited, particularly long-standing negligence cases.

'Significant savings'

"The level of compensation paid in settled cases varies considerably depending on the individual circumstances of each case.

"Determining the amount of compensation payable in a personal injury claim is a judicial decision. The judge alone will have access to the medical evidence and hear from the injured party.

"Every attempt is made to manage the costs of legal cases. The Directorate of Legal Services checks and confirms that bills of costs are properly payable and it routinely challenges the professional fees of the plaintiff's solicitors.

"The Directorate of Legal Services has made significant savings in solicitors' and counsel fees over recent years.

"The judiciary in Northern Ireland are encouraging practitioners to use formal mediation as a means of resolving clinical negligence cases.

"The use of mediation will be led by the judiciary and the department and trusts will be required to comply with those judicial expectations.

"The increase in clinical negligence settlements has been logged in an October monitoring bid and will be logged again in January monitoring."

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