A remedy for medical complaints

The procedures in question here range from the well-known NHS complaints process to the less frequently encountered - for example, those operated by the professional bodies for speech therapists or acupuncturists.

The practitioner referred to in the sub-title will inevitably be the lawyer or Citizens Advice Bureau worker or community health council officer who seeks to advise a would-be complainant.

Those against whom complaints are directed will, of course, have the backing of their respective professional bodies and in the case of the NHS all the service's infrastructure to support them.

This reviewer, being by antecedent a medical negligence defence lawyer, nevertheless occasionally has twinges of compassion for an opponent whose professional library may not have easy access to the gamut of complaints procedures and documentation. So here it is; in an easy, accessible and easily digested form, a useful and comprehensive guide to complaints procedures for 11 main groups of health professionals.

Each chapter sets out in varying degrees of detail how and when you should make your complaint on behalf of your client, what organisations can investigate in terms of allegations against their members or staff and what the complainant can expect to get out of it.

But hold on a minute - why am I talking about 'opponent', and what one might 'get out' of operating the procedure? Is the culture not, as the author says in her introductory chapter, that most patients do not actually want monetary compensation, but merely an explanation, an admission, an apology, a reassurance that what they have experienced will not happen again?

Perhaps if nothing else, this is a change of culture born of necessity with the medium and long-term future of legal aid for medical negligence actions hanging in the balance. We are reminded that in 1995-96 the NHS paid out some£200m to meet the cost of medical negligence claims.

Do we hear a faint, distant drip of crocodile tears? The author is a leading medical negligence plaintiff lawyer, although she is also a trained nurse. We know that the NHS complaints procedure does not cease to operate merely because a lawyer acting for the complainant appears on the scene. There has to be unambiguous indication of an intention to make a claim before the procedure stops in its tracks.

Such an intent is not too difficult to conceal. We all know the NHS complaints procedure is frequently used for evidence-gathering as a preliminary to a claim.

This must be a useful and economical addition to the plaintiff lawyer's bookshelf and is also user-friendly for the lay person. Professional bodies ought also to consider its purchase for easy access to fellow organisations' procedures.

Howard Jacks

Mills and Reeve Solicitors, Edgbaston, Birmingham.