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‘Money is now our only way of expressing regret’

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I bought a second hand car last year, and it’s rubbish. My friends said I should have gone for a sensible option. Something Japanese or French with a roof and something called a gasket. But oh no, I wanted a convertible and they cost more so I had to buy an old one.

While it went reasonably well for the first three months – coincidentally the same length of time as the warranty – bits started to fall off soon after.

First the roof stopped working, then it emerged that a bit of the engine was part of a washing machine, then the newly mended roof stopped working and, just as I thought a pattern was emerging, I got some punctures and the coolant system failed. Then the roof stopped working. Again.

Between the weekly visits to the menders – I take some comfort from the fact that I am keeping at least three garages afloat –I have argued with the people I bought the second hand car from, who helpfully point out that ‘well, it was second-hand’. I may take them to court. I may just carry on being sarcastic to them.

The problem is that, if you are to carry on arguing with people about your ‘rights’, you need to stay angry, have a lot of time or get a lawyer. And I can’t get a lawyer because as far as I can make out they are all hanging around hospitals offering no-win no-fee deals to anyone who might have a complaint from gross medical negligence to not having enough pillows.

It is a good thing that patients who are mistreated or suffer because of avoidable error, negligence or cruelty have some kind of redress. But I can’t help thinking that the lawyers lurking behind the bedpans are not working for the well-being of their fellow human beings. They are motivated by money – and money they are getting, it seems.

The annual bill in England for solicitors acting for patients in compensation claims against the NHS has increased by 112% in four years and now tops £90m. The NHS litigation authority blames this on the rise in no-win no-fee lawyers who, upon winning, can charge up to £600 an hour.

But it is part of an established culture and lawyers are going to take advantage of that. We can see adverts for no-win no-fee solicitors in any A&E department. It’s just a matter of time before they start to buy advertising space on the walls of pre-op
or the backs of nursing uniforms.

This culture is not going to go away. We are litigious and we know that the only expression of regret, error or apology that is accepted these days is financial.

But it’s ugly, isn’t it? And it makes health services just a bit more defensive, doesn’t it? Not necessarily more thorough or more competent but more defensive. And that I think is deeply sad as well as expensive.

Want to read more of Mark Radcliffe? Just click on the more by this author link at the top of this page.

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