Quicker compensation for patients taking medical negligence cases and a reduction in legal costs for all parties are possible if laws allowing pre-action protocols are introduced, it has been claimed.
In a letter to Justice Minister Helen McEntee, a group of leading healthcare organisations said the protocols would provide the opportunity to investigate and resolve claims sooner, without the need to go to court, by promoting early identification and communication of the issues in dispute between the parties.
The letter, which was overseen by the Medical Protection Society, is signed by the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Irish Dental Association, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Irish College of Ophthalmologists, Faculty of Dentistry RCSI, and Irish College of General Practitioners.
“Unlike other countries, solicitors in Ireland are not subject to more extensive obligations to provide specific information and medical records in a way that could resolve clinical negligence claims earlier in the process without the need for court proceedings,” the letter states.
It said the current Irish legal system was adversarial, and often resolved clinical negligence claims only once a trial date had been set.
“In Ireland, only 53pc of cases are resolved at the pre-action stage – with 43.8pc post-proceedings and 2.5pc at trial,” the letter said.
“By way of contrast, in England and Wales where pre-action protocols have been in place for over 20 years, over 70pc of claims are resolved prior to the issue of court proceedings.”
It added that “patients and healthcare professionals experience very high levels of stress when they are party to a claim, greatly exacerbated by how long the litigation process often takes.
“Patients also currently have to wait longer than is necessary before receiving compensation. Clearly if more claims were resolved at the pre-action stage, more patients would be able to have quicker access to the financial support they need,” the medics said.
“A recent study showed that the majority of patient claimants report experiencing emotional harm while making a claim, with some describing it as ‘excruciating’ and often having profound and long-lasting emotional consequences. We know that the healthcare professionals involved often feel the same.”
The minister was told that “legal costs are also much higher for all parties than is necessary”.
Increased legal spend can divert funding from patient care, and increase the tax burden, the medics said, adding that in 2020 legal and expert costs represented 24pc of the total costs of clinical claims – €76.8m of the €321.8m.
The medics said the reform had been backed by a review group chaired by former High Court president Peter Kelly, “which recommended early attention to the introduction of the regulations prescribing the pre-action protocols in clinical negligence cases”.