Is it ethical to sue the NHS?

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The NHS was created from the ideal that good healthcare should be available to everyone in their time of need. It’s one of our proudest achievements, not just from a medical perspective, but also for social justice. So, if something does go wrong, is it ethical to sue the NHS?

Critics will argue that suing the NHS is morally and financially wrong, and that funds are diverted from medical budgets to meet the cost of insurance. On the other hand, if a person is injured and unable to work as a result of poor medical treatment, should the state not support them? Of course, as medical negligence solicitors, we are inclined to support the latter.

Why do people sue the NHS?

People sue the NHS because they feel that they or a loved one, received such poor treatment that instead of improving their health, it made it worse or led to death. But poor treatment, inconsiderate treatment and sometimes even treatment which breaches the doctor’s duty of care isn’t sufficient to bring a medical negligence claim.

The treatment must be considered ‘unreasonable and irresponsible’ in order to prove a claim. It is compared against the benchmark set by other doctors who are practising in the same field at the same time.

But even if treatment is irresponsible, medical negligence lawyers must show that it has affected the patient in a harmful way. For example, a doctor treating a patient with the wrong drugs, or even leaving something inside a patient (provided that it doesn’t require removal), may not be enough to prove grounds for a claim if no or minimal harm was caused.

Sometimes it’s enough to make a complaint. Every NHS organisation has a complaints procedure and you have the right to have your complaint heard.

Client stories | medical negligence

What will suing the NHS actually achieve?

Most people who sue the NHS will receive compensation, but in reality, people just want their lives back to normal. They want, for example, to regain their sight or the use of their limb, or they want to be able to care for their family or continue in their career.

In fatal cases, people want their loved ones to still be with them. Our medical negligence solicitors frequently hear from clients that they “just don’t want this to happen to anyone else”.

Compensation isn’t about shaming the NHS; it’s about helping an individual who has been harmed by NHS treatment.

After people took to the streets to clap for the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic, people felt hypocritical in complaining about the NHS after all the pressure they were put under. However, claiming compensation isn’t about attacking the NHS or its medical staff.

The aim of compensation is to try to put a person back in the position they would be in had their injury not occurred. It isn’t awarded so that a person can benefit financially from what has happened to them.

Compensation will pay for someone to learn brail or for a state-of-the-art prosthesis. It could also pay for childcare assistance or to compensate someone for the fact that they can no longer work. Put simply, compensation can help a person to rebuild their life.

The NHS Litigation Authority is taking an increasing interest in researching prevention through the Serious Incident Reporting and Learning Framework (SIRL). In addition, patient charities, such as AvMA and the National Patient Safety Agency, have been campaigning for years for the introduction of joined-up risk monitoring within the NHS.

Often, the steps taken to investigate why a medical professional caused harm will lead to improvements in NHS care because a problem has been identified and corrected. In more serious cases, the NHS will carry out its own internal investigation to establish what went wrong in order to enable staff to make improvements in the care provided for the better.

Research into the value of compensation

In a new research report by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), injured NHS patients tell their stories of NHS negligence and its impact on their lives. You can read it here.

If I start a negligence claim, will the medical staff involved get into trouble?

Many people also worry about whether the person involved, be that a doctor, nurse, or another medical professional, will face disciplinary action if they are sued. More often than not they won’t, and in many cases, they won’t even know that there’s a case against them.

Professional bodies, such as the General Medical Council (GMC) and Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) are responsible for monitoring fitness to practice. They will carry out their own investigation and decide whether the individual involved is fit to continue to practice if a complaint has been made. This helps to ensure standards in the NHS remain high.

One successful clinical negligence claim is unlikely to have a significant impact on their ability to continue practising. An ordinary doctor or nurse who is acting reasonably and responsibly is unlikely to be sued.

So, is it wrong to sue the NHS?

We cannot see that it is. Medical professionals owe their patients a duty of care and if that duty of care is breached resulting in harm, an individual is entitled to take legal action. This is the law in the UK.

Medical negligence claims are never brought lightly. Punitive sanctions against the NHS do not form part of a case, as in the USA. Making a claim will therefore ultimately lead to more joined-up risk monitoring and improvements in care.

When someone suffers a life-changing injury that should not have happened and which means they can no longer look after themselves or their loved ones, are they not entitled to be compensated by the organisation responsible for that injury? Similarly, when the ‘breadwinner’ in a family has died due to negligent care, do we avoid compensating their children because we as a society regard that as just hard luck?

The defence of the NHS is vital. However, it’s important that the NHS also has the framework in place where an injury occurs as a result of the treatment received, both to compensate for it and to learn from it.

Suing the NHS will never feel comfortable and preserving its ideals and principles for future generations is the ultimate goal. However, it’s too broad a statement to say that it’s morally and ethically wrong to sue the NHS.

How we can help

If you believe that you’ve suffered an injury as a result of substandard medical treatment, get in touch with our specialist medical negligence solicitors. Call 0117 325 2929 for advice on how to make a claim or complete our online contact form and we’ll be in touch.


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