Do you have a moment? We’d like to ask you a few questions about the website

Case of note – North Bristol NHS Trust v. HBW (High Court, 26 May 2022 – Ritchie J.)

Date published:

Introduction

This was a sentencing hearing for Contempt of Court in a claim brought by the trust and NHS Resolution.  As such, the case name reverses the usual order.

Detail

HBW was a young woman who alleged that the trust negligently delayed diagnosing her cauda equina syndrome (a potentially serious condition affecting the nerves at the base of the spine).  She claimed that this delay had caused her symptoms to worsen permanently, resulting in lifelong disability.  The parties agreed a 50/50 settlement in 2017 – in other words, that the claimant would receive 50% of full liability damages.  We made interim payments to her totalling £45,000 and met her solicitors’ charges for dealing with liability issues amounting to £82,000.

In August 2018 HBW signed a schedule of loss totalling around £4.25M. on a 100% basis.  Our medical experts expressed reservations about the extent and nature of her alleged disabilities, and therefore surveillance was authorised.  Although HBW asserted that she used an elbow crutch when walking outside, had ongoing weakness in her left ankle and experienced pain in her back and down both legs, and that her partner did all the shopping and gardening, she was filmed visiting a variety of stores, getting into and out of her car with apparent ease and walking without any limp, slowness or evident disability.

Video evidence was disclosed by us in December 2018, but HBW’s solicitors served a witness statement from her maintaining that she had not been dishonest.  We therefore served a counter-schedule pleading fundamental dishonesty on her part.  In February 2019, her solicitors came off the record and HBW proceeded without lawyers.  She failed to comply with directions from the court, and in April 2019 we were successful in having her claim struck out.    We commenced proceedings against HBW in early 2020 setting out allegations of Contempt of Court.  Permission was not granted by the court to proceed with this claim until June 2021, owing to delays caused by the pandemic.

In November 2021 HBW eventually admitted some, but by no means all, of the contempts we had cited.  It was not until the night before the court hearing in May 2022 that she admitted everything, including that she made numerous false claims to medical experts who had examined her for the purposes of the clinical negligence claim and that she had been dishonest in a signed witness statement.

The judge therefore held that HBW had “dishonestly and intentionally made false statements to four experts” and that those comments were made “knowing that they would interfere with the administration of justice by potentially increasing her entitlement to compensation”.  She “continued to propagate lies about her state of mobility ….. to increase the damages she might be awarded”.  Her behaviour “showed a lack of insight towards the court and the tax-payer who funds the trust and towards justice itself”.

Mr. Justice Ritchie then turned to sentencing.  He observed that the NHS had spent considerable sums of money on interim payments, legal fees and staff time dealing with the case, none of which were likely to be recovered.  HBW’s contempts were deliberate and for her own benefit.  On the other hand, HBW had forfeited the true value of her claim through her actions – that may have been worth up to £150,000.  She was also the mother of a nine-year-old.  The judge decided that neither a fine nor a suspended sentence would be sufficient in view of the seriousness of the case, and that an immediate prison term of six months would be imposed, of which HBW would serve half.

Comment

HBW had a valid clinical negligence claim which may have been worth up to £75,000 on the agreed 50/50 basis.  Instead of receiving that amount by way of compensation she was jailed and will have a prison record upon release which will be reflected in searches.  She has been ordered to repay the interims of £45,000.  Her son will have to be looked after by her partner and mother for three months.

This represents another success for the NHS in vigorously pursuing those who make exaggerated claims with the intention of financial gain.  We have utilised the Contempt of Court route in a number of such cases in the past few years, and our general experience is that courts are receptive to imposing custodial sentences even where, as in this example, there is an underlying valid claim for a smaller amount.  It therefore constitutes a stern warning to those who dishonestly attempt to extract money from the NHS.