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Legal Aid cuts “disastrous” for the vulnerable

A leading clinical negligence solicitor has criticised the government’s plans to scrap legal aid for disabled children.

A leading clinical negligence solicitor has criticised the government’s plans to scrap legal aid for disabled children.

Vicki Jagger is a Partner at Cumbria law firm Burnetts and a nationally recognised expert in neo-natal birth injuries and deaths. She says that the Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales, published by the government at the end of last year, will considerably restrict access to justice for her clients: children who have been severely disabled because of mistakes in their care made by the State.

Under the government’s proposals, legal aid will no longer be available for clinical negligence cases.

She said, “Under the current system, legal aid is available to fund cases when a client has been injured as a result of a sub-standard or incompetent medical treatment. The majority of my clients are children who have been injured at birth in the care of the NHS and as a result suffer profound disabilities including extensive brain damage and many associated health problems. These cases are always very complex and require detailed and expert investigation to get off the ground.

To take away the major plank of financial support which allows these children to bring the State to account is to add insult to their injuries.”

In their consultation proposal, the government acknowledges that such complex Very High Cost Cases (VHCCs) are usually successful. According to their own research,  the success rate for clinical negligence VHCCs is 91%.

Nonetheless, the government argues that Legal Aid should be removed for clinical negligence because of the availability of alternative funding, for example, Conditional Fee Arrangements, so-called no-win, no-fee agreements.

Vicki said, “In my opinion Conditional Fee Arrangements are not an appropriate funding mechanism for complex birth injury cases. This is an arrangement in respect of lawyer’s costs and does not cover other expenses. The pursuit of clinical negligence birth injury cases will always involve a number of medical experts whose fees have to be met long before the case is settled: for my clients , the cost of medical experts’ fees often amounts to tens of thousands of pounds. Few clients could find that sort of money. It would be disastrous for them if these proposals were accepted.”
 
The government says it has taken four main factors into account when deciding if a type of issue should be covered by legal aid in the future. Those factors are: the importance of the issues, the litigant’s ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative dispute resolution routes as well as alternative sources of funding.

Vicki said “By any of the government’s measures, legal aid for clinical negligence cases should stay. Unfortunately in assessing these different factors, the government has failed to understand how the alternative funding sources work in practice and has disregarded the extreme vulnerability of our clients.”

The Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England consultation paper was published in November 2010. The consultation closes on February 14th.  Details of the proposed changes, which also affect family law, employment  law, debt advice and help for victims of crime, can be found at http://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/docs/legal-aid-reform-consultation.pdf

Justice for All has produced a template letter to the Ministry of Justice for anyone who has been helped by Legal Aid to join the campaign. The letter can be found at 
http://www.justice-for-all.org.uk/Take-part/Love-legal-aid

 

Published: Wednesday 9th February 2011
Categorised: Medical Negligence

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