THE parents of children brain damaged at birth are enduring long court ordeals because their lawyers are asking for exorbitant compensation, according to the head of the State Claims Agency.
Ciaran Breen was responding to strong criticism levelled at the agency for its treatment of families who have taken medical negligence claims against hospitals and doctors for their child's catastrophic injury.
"Many people express concern that, in some cases, parents of children who have been catastrophically injured as a result of clinical negligence have had to undergo the additional trauma of giving evidence in court and being cross-examined on their evidence," he said.
"Sometimes it happens because the case is so complex that liability or causation have been difficult to determine or are in dispute.
"But it mostly happens in cases where the settlement demands made by plaintiffs' lawyers are significantly overstated."
He insisted the agency has direct experience of cases where solicitors acting on behalf of plaintiffs have originally demanded a multiple of two or even three times the figure that they were eventually prepared to settle for.
In one case, lawyers were asking for €13m in compensation and they refused to settle for a lesser figure before the case went to court. Yet when it reached the courtroom, they agreed to settle just a few days into the hearing for €5m.
"Had the agency settled at the figure originally proposed, it simply would not have been doing its job on behalf of the taxpayer," Mr Breen wrote in the agency's latest report.
Referring to the option of mediation to avoid a gruelling court battle, he said it offers the parties in clinical negligence cases "a calmer, less adversarial environment within which to resolve such cases".
However, despite this, the number of mediations in clinical negligence cases "remains stubbornly low". The agency settled 19 cases by way of mediation in 2013 and offered it in many other cases.
"But some plaintiffs' lawyers - and, it must be stressed, a minority of them - remain implacably opposed to mediation in these cases and have been vocal in denouncing it. It is difficult to understand why.
"The agency genuinely feels that mediation would be in the best interests of their clients, yet these lawyers disagree," said Mr Breen.
He rejected accusations that the agency operated a "defend and deny" strategy at all costs, "effectively forcing families of brain-damaged children into court to prove their cases".
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he claimed.
The agency has certain obligations that it must fulfil, including the needs of doctors, nurses, midwives and other healthcare practitioners in public hospitals to defend their professional reputations, he said.
"It cannot ignore the fact that it has a statutory mandate that it must carry out.
"If it does not investigate claims and manage litigation conscientiously and professionally, that would constitute a failure on its part to do what it has been tasked to do by the Oireachtas," he said.