Litigation culture draining billions from schools and hospitals

New research highlights damaging financial and social cost of ‘litigation culture’ on health and education.

New research by Professor Frank Furedi highlights the high financial and social cost of today’s ‘culture of litigation’ on health and education services.

The report, by Professor Furedi and Jennie Bristow of the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, is published today (10 September) by the Centre for Policy Studies.

In The Social Cost of Litigation, the authors show that far from increasing safety and accountability, the culture of litigation has resulted in significant costs to the quality of services, the experience of those who use them, and the role of professionals.

Professor Furedi comments: ‘Demanding recompense for accidents is now perceived, not only as a common-sense way of gaining financial compensation, but as a way of holding public services to account.

‘But taken together, the combination of an engrained compensation culture and litigation avoidance is bleeding the health and education services dry: both financially, and in terms of their public sector ethos and professional role.’

The research shows that as of March 2011, the NHS Litigation Authority estimated its potential liabilities at £16.8 billion, of which £16.6 billion related to clinical negligence claims.

However, of the 63,800 claims for medical negligence made since 2001, only about 2,000 (3.2%) have had damages approved or set by the Court. A further 28,700 were settled out of court.

Professor Furedi said: ‘The increasing fear of litigation is also extremely damaging to the professionalism of doctors, nurses and teachers: it erodes professional autonomy, stifles innovation, leads to defensive practices in both hospitals and schools and encourages greater bureaucracy. ‘Best practice’ is now defined as having checked all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best of the patient or pupil.

‘If we want to put a brake on the culture of litigation and litigation avoidance in Britain, we need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense. In particular, we need to challenge the expectation that professional ‘best practice’ in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.’

 Tim Knox, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, comments: ‘This rise in the compensation culture has huge – if largely hidden – costs. In particular, it has created a climate in which professionals will prioritise litigation avoidance above what is best for their pupils or patients. So many schools have reduced the extra-curricular activities that enrich children’s experience while at school, from school trips to outdoor play, while doctors are incentivised to follow ‘best practice’ rather than follow their professional judgement. It is time for policy makers to separate compensation in the public sector from tort law. They also need to consider how a scheme of no-fault liability can be devised to deal with those who have suffered harm.’

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  1. I took my first headship in 1996 and had to deal with two lawsuits claiming compensation for injuries allegedly caused by teacher negligence in my first year. The amount of my time spent dealing with these cases was bad enough; but local authorities have tended in most such cases to settle out of court, fearing that the cost of challenging the lawsuits will be much greater, even if they win. Solicitors know this and the reason for the rise in litigation is precisely that local authorities invariably hand over cash rather than go to court.

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