Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The News International Smokescreen

The revelation that journalists and private investigators working for News International have been hacking into mobile phone messages and using underhand means to obtain confidential medical records and financial information is truly shocking.

However, what is equally shocking is that leaders of our 3 major political parties are using these revelations to court public opinion.  Further the media furore is a smoke screen behind which 3 Bills going through Parliament which will have a more significant and far reaching effect upon all of us.

The Legal Aid, Punishment of Offenders Bill which has already reached the Committee stage in the Houses of Parliament seeks to deny justice to the most injured and vulnerable of our society.  If all the clauses in this Bill become law people with serious and persisting injuries, caused through the negligence of healthcare workers will be denied access to justice.

At present all children and any adult who qualifies financially is entitled to legal aid to investigate and pursue a claim for compensation if they have been injured in the course of healthcare.  The Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill seeks to take away that right at a stroke.  The Government explains to us that this is alright because solicitors will act for those people on a no win no fee agreement.  The situation is no so simple, first an individual may have to pay two to three thousand pounds for initial legal costs before a solicitor will consider entering into a no win no fee agreement.  And then if the case is successful up to a quarter of their damages may be needed to pay for the solicitor’s success fee.

The Public Bodies Bill will postpone the appointment of a Chief Coroner for the foreseeable future.  Following a protest led by the charity INQUEST and supported by AvMA and The Royal British Legion, the act to abolish the role of Chief Coroner was amended but the amendment to defer appointment into the future is far from satisfactory.  At present it is very difficult to challenge a Coroner’s decision, whether to hold an inquest or not, whether to admit certain evidence at the inquest or a verdict.  At present the only way to review a coroners decision is by judicial review.  One of the key roles of a Chief Coroner was to consider appeals (by family and friends of the deceased) on these decisions made by coroners.

Finally, the Health and Social Care Bill.  Many will be aware that following challenges to the proposal that consortiums led by GPs were to take over as the purchasers of care for their patients the Government undertook a review.  However, the decision on who leads the consortium of purchasers has only been modified slightly.  It may, at first seem to many that this commissioning has little to do with an individual's healthcare.  However, if a patient neeeds day surgery and finds instead of being referred locally they must travel to a hospital 30 or 40 miles away simply because that hospital will do the procedure cheaper the patient may feel that they are very significantly affected by this change in the law.

This charity will continue to tweet, blog and comment in opposition to such changes that affect the life, liberty and access to justice for the citizens of this country, in particular for patients.  How can it be that a National Health Service, provided by the Government for its people can injure one of its patients yet the Government itself denies access to justice through removal of legal aid?

In addition to our activities on the social media sites we are also working behind the scenes to lobby MPs, brief journalists and press to provide evidence to Government Select Committees.

Our Legal Director, Catherine Hopkins will be giving evidence to the Scrutiny Committee on the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill on Thursday 14th July.