Responding to litigation

Many doctors who have gone through clinical litigation tell us that coping with personal feelings is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this stressful time.

Keep it in perspective

Receiving a letter from a patient's solicitor that is critical of you or your practice can be very unpleasant, especially if it arrives without warning, so it's important to try to keep some sense of perspective in spite of what is going on around you.

Sometimes a solicitor will send a standard form asking for disclosure of a patient's records to make a claim against you. If you're reading this because you've recently received either a solicitor's letter or a form, it's understandable to be anxious about what to do and how to respond, especially if you have no previous experience of litigation.

Acknowledge emotions

Your first reaction may well be an emotional one. Many doctors tell us they feel anger, sometimes towards the patient or other colleagues involved in the case. It's far better to acknowledge these emotions than suppress them, though of course this is much easier said than done.

You may sometimes feel ashamed at being involved in a case and you may withdraw and fail to confide in anyone. It might help to reduce your anxiety and stress if you find a colleague you can trust and share your feelings with, while of course respecting patient confidentiality.

Maintain objectivity

There may be times when your emotions interfere with your work, sleep and home life. This is natural and you should make allowances for yourself. Remember that your colleagues and family can only support you practically or emotionally if they know what you're going through.

Solicitors' letters are often written in an adversarial and aggressive style, often containing detailed references to legal procedures. They are at best disconcerting and at worst intimidating. Try to avoid taking the contents of any legal document too personally.

The claimants' solicitors are simply doing their job in giving you notice that they are investigating a potential claim against you. There is no pleasant way to do it. It's possible that parts of the letter or form may appear to misrepresent or misinterpret your recollection of the facts, but the solicitor's letter is based largely on their client's instructions and might not be a balanced or objective account of the facts as you remember them.

Try not to be too disturbed by this. You can call the MDU's advisory service to discuss any aspect of such a letter.

Practical steps

  • Seek professional assistance from the MDU.
  • Acknowledge your feelings.
  • Talk to a close colleague.
  • Consider talking to your spouse, partner or a close friend (always maintaining patient confidentiality).

Let the MDU deal with it

You may be tempted to write to the solicitors or contact the patient to refute the allegations. Avoid this and channel your energies into dealing with the practicalities.

Let the MDU review the situation for you. We will advise you of the next steps. It's our role to guide you and we will make this clear for you.

We will tell you if it's appropriate to contact NHS Resolution (NHSR, the body that deals with NHS hospital claims and many GP claims after 1st April 2019) or, if we can act on your behalf. We can provide a buffer between you and the legal process, but your co-operation is vital.

Please follow our instructions and make sure you deal with any correspondence from the MDU or our solicitors as soon as possible throughout the life of the claim. The legal process sets strict timetables and any failure to conform to these may mean the claim is lost by default.

This page was correct at publication on 30/06/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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