The State could save millions of euro by bringing medical negligence claims under the remit of the Injuries Board, its chairwoman has said.
Dorothea Dowling suggested the move could lead to a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to conclude cases, thereby easing the stress on victims and their families.
Claims over medical mistakes are currently handled by the State Claims Agency, which was thrust into the spotlight last month when a High Court judge criticised the State for causing additional stress for families by long delays in admitting liability.
The Injuries Board provides independent assessment of personal injury compensation for victims of workplace, motor or public liability accidents, but Ms Dowling said that when the board was set up in 2004, it was initially intended to include medical negligence in its remit. This was also a promise in the Fine Gael election manifesto in 2011.
"Bringing cases to the steps of the court for the sake of being macho about it doesn't make any sense from anybody's point of view," she said.
Defending its handling of cases after the criticism from Ms Justice Mary Irvine last month, the State Claims Agency said its policy was to admit liability when expert medical evidence indicated there had been a breach of duty in a particular case.
However, it said, the commissioning of that evidence could take considerable time, especially in complex cases that range across different fields.
“Doctors will take forever to produce reports if you let them,” Ms Dowling said. “But if you take the Injuries Board situation, we allow people 90 days to investigate an accident and get all the facts . . .”
Ms Dowling said that when the Injuries Board was established, critics argued it would feed a “compensation culture” and cost too much. “It just didn’t happen,” she said.
“What actually happened was that people are rehabilitating quicker because their cases are being dealt with in a non-stressful, non-adversarial manner.”
According to Ms Dowling, the board is self-funding and now concludes cases in an average of 7.2 months, while the cost of motor insurance has fallen 40 per cent since it was set up. She said giving the board responsibility for medical mistakes would save the State millions of euro.
Ms Dowling suggested the State Claims Agency had a strategy of "dragging things out and denying everything" in an attempt to dissuade people from making claims for medical negligence. "And it's not working," she added. "Because if you look at the Courts Service annual report, the number of medical negligence claims is going up by one-third every year."
In an interview with The Irish Times last month, agency director Ciarán Breen, said it had no interest in "grinding down" plaintiffs.
“The last thing we should be doing as a State agency is to act in any kind of oppressive or difficult manner,” he said.
Official figures show that, last year, 50 per cent of claims under the clinical indemnity scheme administered by the agency were resolved by negotiating a settlement, compared with 25 per cent in 2008.