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Law Society president defends chief executive over role at NHSLA as fees fight looms

Catherine Dixon [1]

Dixon: described as “equally robust” in her new role

Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, has described chief executive Catherine Dixon as “fully committed” to ensuring that medical negligence lawyers are “fairly rewarded” under any new fee regime imposed by the government, despite her previous role on the other side of the fence.

The government will shortly consult on imposing fixed fees [2] for claims worth less than £100,000 – or maybe even £250,000 [3]. The idea has drawn strong criticism from claimant lawyers and is set to provoke a major battle with the government.

Prior to taking the reins at Chancery Lane, Ms Dixon was chief executive of the NHS Litigation Authority, and was quoted last year in the Sunday Telegraph [4] as saying the NHS could save £69m a year if claimant lawyers’ costs were capped at the same level as defendant lawyers’ costs plus an extra 20%.

It was an article that was met with hostility by claimant lawyers, in part because of Ms Dixon’s allegations about them front-loading costs, and also from those named by the paper [5] for supposedly excessive costs claims on the basis of data supplied by the NHSLA.

The NHSLA’s most recent annual report [6] said that for clinical claims resolved in 2014/15, while claimant solicitors claimed £297m – and settled for £199m – defendant solicitors were paid £97m.

But in an article [7] for the Law Society’s Gazette last week, Ms Dixon said the government would be better off focusing on improving NHS care than on solicitors’ costs.

If the costs regime did change, she said, fees must be set “at a sustainable and fair level that enables this important work to continue for an appropriate level of return which recognises: the cost of practice; the fact that this work is highly specialised; and the importance of it to the NHS and its patients”.

Mr Smithers said in a statement to Legal Futures: “We will be robust in defending our members’ interests and ensuring they are paid a fair amount for the critical and specialist work they do to seek justice for people who have suffered harm through no fault of their own as a result of negligent NHS care.

“It has been more than nine months and a change of government since our chief executive Catherine Dixon was CEO of the NHSLA. A chief executive represents the organisation they work for and expresses views and policy positions of that organisation.

“Catherine acknowledged at the time [in the Sunday Telegraph article] that ‘access to justice is important, and it is right that claimants’ solicitors are paid a fair amount for the work they do’.

“Catherine is equally robust in defending solicitors in her new role and fully committed to doing whatever she can to ensure that the specialist work undertaken by solicitors in clinical negligence cases, which are often complex, is fairly rewarded.”

James Maxey, managing partner of Manchester claimant firm Express Solicitors – which was one of the firms named in the Sunday Telegraph article – said: “It is difficult for someone who has espoused one view very firmly and engaged in one part of this war – led by the insurers, government, the Ministry of Justice and the NHSLA – to espouse another one.

“We would happily engage with her if she wanted to come to us, talk to us and find out more. I know people can change and would support her. However, saying ‘I’m right now and I was right then’ is difficult to sustain.”

Mr Maxey went on: “We do this job to help clients, not because it’s a gravy train. There’s no cheap way of doing it. The biggest issue for us is the level of disbursements you have to incur.”

He said that, even without the fee cuts and restrictions on after-the-event insurance premiums, he would have to make redundancies in the firm’s medical negligence department, which he described as “by far my least profitable”.

He added: “The NHSLA has an atrocious record when it comes to behaviour in litigation. They fight cases that should not be fought. Fixed fees for claimant lawyers would provide no incentive for them to change their behaviour.”