Plans to ban personal injury firms advertising in hospitals in England are short sighted and counter productive, says the Law Society's head of the Justice Team, Richard Miller.
A ban on adverts from personal injury firms floated by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt could mean a ban on NHS Trusts entering into deals where law firms promote their services in NHS Accident and Emergency units.
The announcement seems to buy into the belief that marketing by law firms in hospitals is opportunistic - intrusive for patients and their families, and distracting for staff. At first sight such a move would protect consumers. The reality is very different. That's because the right of ordinary people to receive full and proper compensation from those that have injured them – often seriously - through negligence will be undermined yet further.
People in hospital who want legal advice may be unable to access it. These services enable those who want to have the benefit of legal advice the opportunity to get it.
In February the Ministry of Justice confirmed it is ploughing ahead with plans to increase the small claims limit for all road traffic injuries to £5000.
These changes will deprive motorists and their passengers from being able to recover the cost of essential legal advice for any injuries worth £5,000 and under when a negligent driver crashes into their car. The reality for many people will be that they are left unable to get legal advice to help them understand how to pursue their claim, get medical evidence or understand how much compensation they should get.
The Law Society suggests that, rather than trying to further restrict access to justice for consumers who have been injured seriously through negligence and abolish or reduce compensation for the vast majority of genuine claimants, the government should take firm action to end the activities of cold callers who seek to profit from bogus or exaggerated claims.
The Telephone Preference Service - which enables consumers to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls - is moving from The Office of Communications (Ofcom) to the Information Commissioners’ Office. This represents a missed opportunity to tackle the problem of nuisance calls, unsolicited and unwanted marketing messages, plus spam texts for personal injury. Until there is a ban, unscrupulous operators will find a way around the rules, which are opaque and difficult to navigate.
We have been calling for a complete ban on cold calling for personal injury claims some time. It is essential to protect consumers and prevent unscrupulous operators from finding a way around existing rules. Fraudulent claims should be stamped on, but this should not be at the expense of honest claimants.
People who suffer injury, whether it is whiplash and broken bones from a car accident - or worse - through no fault of their own are entitled to compensation for their loss. Anyone who finds themselves in hospital with an injury caused by someone else's negligence should see an independent solicitor before considering settling a claim. Making it harder for honest accident victims to be compensated will help only the directors and shareholders of insurance companies.
Naturally we would argue that solicitors should be able to advertise their services like any other part of a modern economy. But a less obvious argument is that a ban on law firms marketing their services in hospitals will prevent the positive effects of a cross functional approach to health outcomes on social welfare issues.
As accident and emergency departments struggle to cope with demand, hospitals are developing triage and redirection systems that put GPs at the forefront of making sure patients are seen by the right service. Consequently, one pressing concern for the Department of Health should be the amount of time GPs spend dealing with patients' personal relationship problems, housing and unemployment concerns or work-related issues. One report from charity Citizens Advice found that medical practitioners spend nearly a fifth of their consultation time dealing with non-medical issues at a cost of nearly £400m to the NHS.
NHS trusts choose to enter into commercial agreements with law firms for a number of reasons. NHS staff often need a solicitor to swear or witness documents for the purposes of professional registration. Meanwhile, for patients and their families, there can be a whole range of pressing issues that require attention, such as housing matters, continuation of benefits or making a will.
An integrated approach, where legal firms offer their services in a medical setting, can actually result in savings in health budgets. This is crucial at a time when the NHS has severe budget constraints.
An evaluation by Smith & Patel (2008) of the Money Advice Outreach pilots points to research that shows people in receipt of legal advice experienced benefits including lower anxiety, better general health, relationships and housing stability. In a separate evaluation of the impact of a Citizens Advice health outreach service on GP surgeries, Palmer et al. (2010) reported that the service was beneficial to patients. Furthermore their study found statistically significant reductions in the number of GP appointments and prescriptions for hypnotics and anxiolytics; as well as reductions in nurse appointments and prescriptions for antidepressants. Remarkably, the number of GP appointments reduced by an average of 0.63 appointments per patient, equating to a total of 93 fewer appointments for the 148 patients .
It is not surprising that housing and money issues often are seen as contributing to long term conditions such as depression and anxiety. Early legal advice can help people sort out problems before they escalate and can prevent people from having to rely on welfare support, or involve the courts.
A poll of GPs conducted for the Legal Action group (LAG) by the polling and research company ComRes in 2014 showed that Mental ill health is the largest single cause of disability in the UK, contributing almost 23% of the overall burden of disease (compared for example to about 16% each for cancer and cardiovascular disease). The economic and social costs of mental health problems in England are estimated at around £105 billion each year.
Access to legal advice at the early stage of a problem can substantially improve health outcomes and has the wider health benefit of reducing demand on medical services. What more proof is needed that cross functional services are a no-brainer.