Payouts made by the NHS have trebled over the past decade to more than £1.3 billion a year, of which more than £200 million goes in fees to lawyers.
In education, pupils were awarded more than £2 million in compensation in 2010 – while nearly £7 million was paid out to injured or sacked teachers.
At the same time, fear of being sued has fuelled the growth of “tick box bureaucracy” and has eroded trust between professionals and the public, according to the report published by the Centre for Policy Studies.
The authors say that the rise in legal claims is “bleeding public services dry” and has created the fantasy that there is “no such thing as an accident”.
Parents are increasingly prepared to hire lawyers to deal with playground stumbles, bullying and even exam failure, the report shows.
In one recent case, a pupil from north London was awarded £16,000 when he tripped over while running.
A pupil in Doncaster received £3,000 damages when he suffered cuts from a rose bush. In another case a child in Bradford got £2,500 when her hand was hurt cutting up fruit.
The readiness of patients and parents to bring claims has been portrayed by some as a means of holding public services to account.
However, the consequence has been that doctors and teachers increasingly follow procedures designed to “cover their backs” rather than to do the best for patients and children, says the report.
As a result, it says, nurses fill in paperwork rather than tend to the sick, doctors over-order precautionary scans, and surgeons avoiding using new techniques which might be in their patients’ best interests. Some schools have even banned children from running.
As of March, the NHS Litigation Authority estimated its potential liabilities for outstanding clinical negligence claims at £18.6 billion. The amount is the equivalent to one-sixth of the annual health service budget.
NHS authorities choose to settle most claims out of court, in an attempt to limit the amount they have to pay.
Only in around one in 30 cases are damages set by court. The £1.33 billion bill faced by the NHS in 2011/12 included £230 million in legal costs.
Schools have faced legal claims not only from injured pupils but also from staff who have been hurt at work.
One teacher from north Lincolnshire was awarded £500 damages for an injury sustained while restraining a pupil, in a case where the legal costs amounted to £61,464.
In another case, £2,000 was awarded to a member of staff at a school in the Wirral after they stubbed their toe on a box, yet the legal costs reached £14,300.
The report accuses trade unions of facing both ways on the issue of litigation. It points out that they help their members to bring personal injury claims against schools when they are hurt, while at the same time criticising the trend for parents to sue over their children’s injuries.
One teaching union, the NASUWT, has even warned its members against taking part in outdoor activities because of the risk of litigation should a pupil be hurt in an accident.
In response to the threat of compensation claims, some schools have curtailed activities which involve an element of risk, such as outdoor trips and sports like rugby.
One primary head teacher told the researchers: “The big difference in the last few years is the increase in the blame culture – there is no such thing as an accident, it has to be someone’s fault and someone has to pay.”
Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent and joint author of the report, said that the litigation culture was “bleeding public services dry”.
“Every time we bring a claim against our health or education services, we are in effect suing ourselves,” he said.
“And every time we are encouraged to ‘name, blame and claim’ as an act of responsible citizenship, to stop other people sharing our bad experiences, we end up contributing to the worsening of these very services.”
The academic said that in recent years there had been official recognition of the “villains” of the piece; the lawyers who earn fees from representing accident victims and the claim management companies that encourage individuals to lodge claims.
However, to stem the tide, a cultural shift was necessary, he said.
“If we want to put a brake on the culture of litigation and litigation avoidance in Britain, we need to look beyond ambulance-chasers and greedy lawyers to the cultural conditions that have allowed litigious sentiments to flourish as common sense,” said Professor Furedi.
“In particular we need to challenge the expectation that professional ‘best practice’ in the public sector should be measured by the absence of complaints or litigation.”