legal briefing

Yet another group legal action has come to an unhappy end, with almost no one winning except the lawyers.

So unsatisfactory was the outcome of the litigation by 127 women injured by radiotherapy for breast cancer that the Legal Aid Board has met all the parties to see what lessons can be learned for the future.

Of the 127 women severely injured, only about 15 are expected to receive settlements, mainly in the£50,000-£100,000 bracket. Of that sum, a substantial chunk will be clawed back by the Legal Aid Board.

Why? Because the attempt to bring the case as a group action failed. The cases involved different treatment protocols at some 60 hospitals over a 30-year period, and should have been brought as individual claims.

The women's lawyers ran up a£3m bill investigating and running a 'generic' case which ultimately failed. That means the NHS will not pick up those costs, even where it settles individual cases.

Legal aid rules require costs unrecovered from a defendant to be clawed back from the settlement. Each woman who receives a settlement could lose around£30,000 in legal aid costs and the share of the£1.5m NHS costs (most of it unrecoverable) she became liable for as a result of losing the generic case.

Women who were not on legal aid and who received no settlement are even worse off: they have been handed bills for up to£23,700 by their lawyers.

Under new legal aid procedures introduced in February, group actions are now conducted under contracts with a number of closely monitored firms.

Hourly rates are fixed from the outset by competitive tender, and are well below the rates charged in the breast cancer radiotherapy case. But new rules for running multi-party actions, promised for some time, are not yet on the horizon.