Responding to litigation

Many doctors who have gone through clinical litigation tell us that coping with personal feelings at the beginning of the process and at other key points is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this stressful time.

Keep it in perspective

Receiving a letter from a patient's solicitor containing criticism of you, often entirely without warning, is very unpleasant. Sometimes the solicitor will send a standard form asking for disclosure of a patient's records to make a claim against you. If you are reading this guide because you have recently received either a solicitor's letter or a form, then it is understandable that you may be anxious, especially if you have no previous experience of litigation. It is important to try to keep some sense of perspective in spite of what is going on around you.

Acknowledge emotions

Your first reaction may well be an emotional one. Many doctors tell us they feel anger. Sometimes this is directed towards the patient or other colleagues involved in the case. It is 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 may help to reduce your anxiety and stress if you find a colleague you can trust and share your feelings – always respecting patient confidentiality, of course.

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 are 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 is likely that parts of the letter or form may appear to misrepresent or misinterpret the facts as you remember them. The solicitor's letter is based largely on their client's instructions and may 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 deal with the matter for you. It is our role to act on your behalf, providing a buffer between you and the legal process, but your co-operation is vital.

Please follow our instructions as soon as possible and deal promptly with correspondence from the MDU or our solicitors 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 guidance was correct at publication . It 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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