Bar Council rejects claims over ‘excessive’ legal fees

Lawyers claim ‘deny and defend’ approach widespread in medical negligence cases

The Bar Council has rejected claims that excessive legal costs are driving up the cost of medical indemnity and forcing doctors into emigration and retirement.

The council says a proposal to put a cap on the damages paid to the victims of medical negligence would be “grossly unfair” on injured patients.

In a presentation to the Oireachtas health committee that seeks to rebut many of the claims made by medical groups at the same committee last week, the council says the judiciary has been the subject of unfair and unwarranted criticism over procedures in Irish courts.

Last week, the Medical Protection Society, which provides indemnity cover for 16,000 doctors, said large increases in the cost of cover, driven by high legal costs, were driving some out of practice. It claimed the poor economic climate was encouraging more patients to sue, and lawyers to move into clinical injury cases from other areas.

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Evidence

The Bar Council said it was not aware of any evidence to support this, or a claim that lawyers were bringing proceedings without supporting medical evidence.

There was no empirical evidence to suggest barristers were being paid more than they were entitled to in medical negligence cases. “The work is typically complicated and complex and the fees paid are commensurate with the time and expertise involved.”

Another lawyers’ group, the Medical Injuries Alliance, told the committee a “deny and defend” culture was widespread in the medical profession, and it benefited no one.

"The medical profession and their insurers define the problem as solely one of financial costs for their members rather than seeing the tragic human cost, the lost lives and/or disability caused to patients by substandard medical care," said solicitor Michael Boylan.

He said it was “grossly offensive” to patients to suggest they were motivated by a compensation culture or the recession to pursue claims with no merit.

David versus Goliath

Patients already faced a “David versus Goliath” struggle to bring a case, so why make it harder for them to access justice, he asked.

Deirdre Courtney, from Ardfert, Co Kerry, told of her experience of bringing a case after her daughter Bríd suffered brain damage during birth in Tralee General Hospital in 2003. The case was fully defended by the State, despite medical reports which found her labour had been negligently managed.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times