The questions of whether legal aid funds suitable cases, and of how well the NHS performs in defending and settling claims, should become clearer when the National Audit Office publishes a long-awaited report.

In 1997-98, legal aid funded more than 90 per cent of clinical negligence claims at a cost of£62m. But does the system deliver value for money?

Is the Legal Services Commission (which has taken over from the now-defunct Legal Aid Board) funding the right cases or do too many doubtful cases win support? And how well does the NHS perform in settling and defending clinical negligence claims?

The inquiry team, which began work last spring, was scheduled to report around now, but the projected date has slipped to late spring.

The exercise should produce valuable insights into good and not-so-good practices affecting cost, success ratios, speed of settlement and the way lawyers are used.

The NHS pays out bigger and bigger sums each year to settle patients' negligence claims. In August 1999, the NHS Executive was aware of at least 15,000 outstanding claims, totalling£2.4bn. The taxpayer funds not only the compensation and the defence of the claims, but in most cases their pursuit as well.