NHS spends thousands on top QC to enter guilty plea

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LOTHIAN health bosses have come under fire after spending thousands hiring one of Britain’s top QCs – to enter a guilty plea at the first opportunity.

NHS Lothian was hauled before the courts in September after it failed to take adequate precautions to protect Magdalene Anderson, a long-serving community mental health nurse, who was subjected to a potentially lethal attack by a dangerous schizophrenic while on a home visit.

Despite accepting full responsibility for its part in the nurse’s ordeal, which saw clumps of hair torn from Ms Anderson’s scalp and left her suffering distressing flashbacks, NHS Lothian hired Peter Gray to represent it at Haddington Sheriff Court.

The Capital-based QC, who is recognised as one of the UK’s leading practitioners in regulatory crime and has represented several multinational firms in high-profile health and safety cases, entered two guilty pleas on behalf of the NHS and offered mitigation in a bid to lessen the financial penalty.

The health service was eventually hit with a £32,000 fine for its failures which led to the attack, but figures obtained by the Evening News under Freedom of Information laws have revealed that the cost was several thousand more when legal fees, including Mr Gray’s, were factored in.

It today emerged that the health board spent almost £18,500 on “legal support costs” while a further £1891 was paid out as part of a separate employers’ liability claim.

The decision to spend several thousand on the case and the hiring of a leading QC was today questioned by senior MSPs, at a time that health budgets are coming under increasing strain.

Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “Clearly there will be occasions where health boards need the very best legal counsel, especially given the complexity of cases they can potentially face. However, it seems odd to bring in the big guns, only to plead guilty right away.

“It’s important NHS boards like Lothian seek to get best value at all times, whether that is in the waiting room or the court room, and perhaps the use of expensive legal teams for simple cases can be looked at in future.”

In the wake of the case, NHS Lothian was condemned by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for failing to prevent the attack on the nurse, then aged 55, by the patient who had previously been violent towards NHS staff.

The patient, then 58, ambushed Ms Anderson when the nurse visited her Tranent home in March 2009, forcing her to the floor and shaking her head in an attack that lasted several minutes.

An investigation found there were no adequate risk assessments for members of the community health team dealing with violence and aggression, or for lone workers in clients’ homes. NHS Lothian also failed to provide proper training, supervision or provide a safe system of work for the home visits.

It took the health board eight months to report the incident to the HSE, which it should have done within ten days.

Alan Boyter, NHS Lothian’s director of human resources and organisational development, defended the legal costs saying it involved “substantial background work” over a three-year period.