Down in the Everglades, the lawyers are not so much reptiles as hungry alligators - and they are snapping hard at the heels of any doctor who makes a mistake. If the medical establishment in this country is worried by the rising cost of negligence claims, it should look west, and count its blessings.

The Florida Medical Malpractice Web Site, provided by a specialist legal practice, offers guidance on such questions as: 'How much will my attorney charge?' Answer: 'Up to 40 per cent of the first $1m and 30 per cent of the second.' And: 'What will the defence do?' Answer: 'Blame the patient.'

It also explains how lawyers check a doctor's record as a prelude to suing the pants off them. Much of the information is online, including a Department of Insurance database of paid malpractice claims histories and the Agency for Health Care Administration's list of disciplinary actions against doctors.

Failing all else, they will turn to the Americal Medical Association's Physician Select site, which claims to provide information on virtually every licensed doctor in the US, or to the American Board of Medical Specialties, which at least will tell you who is qualified to do what and where.

It is very different here. Croydon-based solicitors McMillan Williams offer a parallel 'Going to law' guide on medical negligence which damps down talk of big payouts by pointing out that 'sometimes things can go wrong because of plain bad luck' and advising would-be litigants to exhaust other routes first.

Will all this change? The firm is concerned at what will happen under no-win, no-fee reforms. And it has felt the impact of a greater willingness to sue doctors: it took on 37 cases in 1996, 44 in the first nine months of 1997 and now has 150 on its books, even after turning away about a third. Straws in the wind?