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Hospital complaints guidelines "deny patients' access to justice"

Author: Neil Fearn  Bullet  Dated: 08/07/2013

Campaigners for patient safety are legally challenging the Health Secretary, claiming hospitals are using the law to prevent inquiries into medical errors.

Hospitals blocking patient complaints

The legal challenge is being put forward by Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), a charity which provides advice and support to thousands of people affected by medical accidents.

This follows NHS guidelines which allow a hospital to refuse to proceed with a complaint if patients or relatives consider legal action in future.

Campaigners have said that by adhering to "confusing" NHS guidelines, resulting in hospitals closing complaints if they thought there was likelihood that those complaining might consider taking legal action.

solicitors' letter has now been issued, advising the Department of Health that a judicial review will be sought in the High Court if the guidelines are not adjusted.

Current NHS guides unlawful

Mr Walsh added that, on taking legal advice, AvMA understood the present guidance to be unlawful and contrary to stated NHS guidance on complaints. According to the guidance, the complaints process should only be stopped if it is going to prejudice court proceedings.

The Department has pledged to more openness following the Mid-Staffs scandal, where patients died because of serious failures in care. In short, this legally obliges hospitals to confess to medical mistakes.

However, such promises mean nothing if hospitals can block enquiries because a case might go to court, AvMA said.

Mr Walsh noted that, since a disclosure might make a legal defence harder to mount, NHS hospitals were regularly shutting down complaints. The charity has discovered various instances where the NHS Ombudsman and hospital trusts have declined to consider complaints purely because legal action might have been contemplated.

"What is really sinister about this is that patients are being denied access to justice," Mr Walsh said. While Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said a review was underway to examine how complaints are presently dealt with. "It is in the interests of everyone who cares about the NHS - from patients, to doctors and nurses - that patients can trust that when they make a complaint, it is dealt with correctly and thoroughly," Mr Hunt said.

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