NHS hacks clinical negligence panel

The National Health Service is slashing at least six firms from its clinical negligence panel in a review of its legal services.

It is believed that Trowers & Hamlins, Mills & Reeve, Scrivenger Seabrook, Le Brasseur J Tickle, Davies Arnold Cooper and Crutes are all taking part in an NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA) debriefing process which indicates that their services are no longer required.

Last week, the NHSLA banned all chosen firms from talking to the press or risk losing their places on the panel.

It is believed that Beachcroft Wansbroughs has lost its contract for London and Sheffield, while Browne Jacobson has not been retained in the capital, although both firms remain on the panel. Eversheds is on the panel for the North East and its remit has been expanded to include Leeds as well as Newcastle.

A number of firms have been added to the panel, including Kennedys and Weightmans. Both firms were gatekeepers for the NHSLA, acting as intermediaries between the panel firms and the NHS.

It is no surprise that these two firms have been included, despite the gatekeeper scheme being controversial. It was criticised as being an unnecessary cost by a number of firms on the panel (The Lawyer, 30 June 1998). However, sources were shocked that Trowers & Hamlins, which was also a gatekeeper, has been cut.

The unexpected entrant is thought to be a commercial Newcastle-based firm Ward Hadaway.

One lawyer says: “Ward Hadaway has a good relationship with Newcastle hospitals and the NHS doesn't want to put all of its eggs into one basket. It will need an alternative to Eversheds in the North East region.”

NHSLA chief executive Steve Walker confirms that a review is taking place but denies that any final decisions have been made.

“We are looking predominantly at quality but geography will also come into it given that the NHS is diversely spread. We will also be asking whether we need practices in all these areas,” he says.

In April 1998, the NHS cut its panel from 90 to 18 in a bid to control its spending on medical negligence claims, believed to have been £200m per year. Before then, individual NHS trusts instructed their own firms around the country.

Hardest hit by the decision will be boutique Cambridgeshire-firm Scrivenger Seabrook, which derives 90 per cent of its business from the NHSLA panel. All four of the firm's partners do clinical negligence work and the decision to remove the firm from the panel will leave partners with two options: to refocus in a new area or to abandon ship.

A partner in one of the firms no longer on the panel says: “There has been so much stress and pressure that it is almost a sense of relief to find out that we are not on the panel. Now we can start making decisions about the future.”

The NHS has yet to decide whether firms removed from the panel will continue to advise on ongoing claims. Walker says that the decision will depend on certain criteria. “For example, whether we are critical of the firm's work or whether they were removed from the panel because we have reservations about their management.”

The changes will take effect from 1 April 2001.

The Panel

Beachcroft Wansbroughs

Brachers

Browne Jacobson

Eversheds

Hempsons

Vizard Oldham

Weightmans

Barlow Lyde & Gilbert

George Davies

Capsticks

Hill Dickinson

Ward Hadaway

Bevan Ashford

Kennedys

Those cut from the panel:

Crutes

Davies Arnold Cooper

Le Brasseur J Tickle

Mills & Reeve

Scrivenger Seabrook

Trowers & Hamlins