Dixon defends previous employer NHSLA while setting out vision for Law Society

Dixon: fixed fees can be a good option

Dixon: fixed fees can be a good option

The Law Society chief executive has said complaints that the behaviour of her former employer, the NHS Litigation Authority, drive up legal costs are not accurate.

In the third and final part of our interview with Catherine Dixon (read the previous articles here and here), she also outlined her ambition to make the Law Society more member focused.

The government is set to consult shortly on introducing fixed costs, and in an interview in 2014 when chief executive of the NHSLA, Ms Dixon highlighted what were presented as excessive costs from claimant lawyers.

She hit back at suggestions that her previous role made her the wrong person to campaign on the issue on behalf of claimant solicitors.

“As a solicitor [myself], our members will very much recognise the fact that we act for different parties throughout our career and one of those roles is putting forward the best interests of that particular client.”

In any case, she argued, she had not been “totally on the other side”. She explained: “When I was at the NHS, I was very, very clear that it was important that claimants had the right to proper representation that was paid for fairly and appropriately – that’s always been my position and I don’t think I’ve ever said anything inconsistent with that.”

Claimant lawyers usually blame the NHSLA’s approach to claims as a central reason for higher costs. “If you look at the evidence in terms of settlement times for the NHSLA, you will see quite a different story. The average settlement time for a claim when I was at the NHSLA was 1.28 years, so this idea that claims are dragged out years and years is not the case… I think it does a good job.”

That figure, she added, included maternity claims, which always take several years because of the time needed for effects of the negligence to manifest themselves.

Ms Dixon said that for certain cases fixed fees can be appropriate: “They can actually be welcomed by the profession as well because they give certainty and they can enable monies to be paid more quickly because you’re not having a long period of time negotiating what fees should be.

“So for the right types of cases, which tend to be lower-value, less complex cases, then fixed fees can be a very good option if they are set at the right level to properly remunerate for the work.

“The risk is if you get that wrong and you make it uneconomic for specialist providers to operate, then what moves into that market tends to be the claims management companies. That would be very detrimental to patients in the case of the NHS but also actually to the NHSLA because it would then have to then be dealing with a lot of poorly formulated claims and that’s the last thing it should want.”

Recently, the Law Society published a strategy and three-year business plan, putting at its heart the aims of representing, promoting and supporting solicitors. The facetious response to this was to ask what the society had been doing up to then. More to the point, was this just a repackaging of work that was already being undertaken, and indeed long has been?

Ms Dixon said there was “some” new elements to the plans, but argued that “it’s more about how we focus on the members and put them at the heart of what we do in a different way to how it’s been done in the past”.

So what will that look like? She gave the example of education and training, where – with some significant regulatory changes coming down the track – “we’re doing a big piece of work to think about how we can ensure that we’re supporting the breadth of our members where they need that support, whereas perhaps in the past it’s been more ad hoc and more focused on certain sectors of the membership”.

The problem with three-year plans is that the legal world is exceptionally fast-moving right now. “One of things about this role is that you never go through a week really without something new coming out of government or the regulators,” Ms Dixon acknowledged, “so I think getting on the front foot in relation to some of that is going to be key.”

When it comes to Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, however, so far he has appeared much more receptive to the arguments of barristers than solicitors. Is the Law Society getting on the front foot with him?

Ms Dixon said: “I can’t get into the Lord Chancellor’s head. I suspect that his previous experience as a court reporter means he might have greater levels of familiarity with the Bar than with the solicitors’ profession but we do meet with him regularly and we are putting forward our members’ concerns.”

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