Lawyers for patients have said the Government’s plans to introduce fixed fees for lawyers acting on behalf of patients and their relatives is likely to lead to less transparency and fewer investigations into adverse events, meaning opportunities to learn lessons and avoid further deaths are missed, following a damning report on the way the NHS investigates patients’ deaths and deals with complaints.
They also called on the Government to act, pointing out that this is the latest in a series of reports critical of the complaints and investigation process within the NHS.
In the latest review published today by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) a string of issues with the NHS investigation process have been identified including a level of "acceptance and sense of inevitability" when people with a learning disability or mental illness died early.
The report notes that NHS Trusts in England are "immediately on the defensive”. Today’s CQC report found that bereaved families were not being included or listened to in official investigations into patient deaths. They were also left without clear answers as to what happened.
One family member told the CQC: "You're viewed as a pain in the neck really, it's a bit like if you keep complaining about the washing machine but the machine is out of warranty.
The CQC warned that the NHS is missing opportunities to learn from the deaths of patients making it more likely for similar tragedies to be repeated.
The CQC's chief inspector of hospitals Professor Sir Mike Richards said: "We found that, too often, opportunities are being missed to learn from deaths so that action can be taken to stop the same mistakes happening again.
"Families and carers are not always properly involved in the investigations process or treated with the respect they deserve.”
Nicola Wainwright from the medical negligence team at Leigh Day said: "In 2011 I gave evidence to the select committee on complaints and litigation - the same issues were raised - nothing has changed.
"This report highlights the experience of many of our clients, a health system which closes ranks and offers bereaved relatives no explanation after a loved one dies.
"This often leads to litigation simply to find out what has happened.
"The Government's plans for fixed legal costs for patients and their relatives, whilst spending millions on defending these cases, will simply lead to this behaviour worsening.”
Emma Jones, a human rights lawyer at Leigh Day who represented hundreds of victims of the Stafford Hospital scandal said she welcomed the report but it only added to previous findings.
Ms Jones said: “This latest report by the CQC does not raise new issues. The Francis inquiry in 2010 highlighted “complaints disappearing into a black hole”. In 2013 Anne Clwyd referred to the need for a complaint ‘revolution’ and in 2014 the Patients Association report found the NHS complaints system still not fit for purpose.
“The government needs to stop commissioning reports and take action to address this issue”