The nation’s top expert in company law strangled himself to death on a psychiatric ward at Epsom Hospital due to a “deplorable lack of care” by NHS staff, a top judge heard on Monday.

Professor Benjamin Pettett’s life would have been saved had he been recognised as of a high suicide risk and kept under close observation, the High Court was told.

He was admitted to hospital during a period of acute illness when he tried to cut off his hand with an axe.

Mr Justice Holroyde expressed his “disappointment” NHS bosses had continued to deny liability for Professor Pettett’s death, despite his bereaved family’s “most compelling case” that neglect contributed to the tragedy.

Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust agreed to pay the professor’s widow, Cornelia, and his 15-year-old daughter, Florence, from Reigate, Surrey, £550,000 to settle their damages claim.

But the judge said the fact the case had come right to the doors of the court before a settlement was reached was a “disappointing reflection” on the trust.

Professor Pettett, a renowned academic at University College, London, was author of leading text book Pettett on Company Law, but his “perfect mind” was blighted by a history of depression, which escalated in June 2005.

His family’s barrister, James Badenoch QC, said Professor Pettett’s wife rushed him to the accident and emergency department at East Surrey Hospital after the axe incident, but after a long delay she phoned a psychiatric consultant – who was a family friend.

The barrister said 49-year-old Professor Pettett’s “florid psychotic symptoms” would have been obvious to anyone and, when his friend saw him, he hardly recognised him.

Professor Pettett was driven to Epsom Hospital where he was admitted to the Delius Ward, but over the next five days he was not recognised as of a serious suicide risk and was not once seen by a consultant, the court heard.

The barrister said: “There was a deplorable lack of care and we say that, on every single count, they failed in the care of the professor.”

Five days after his admission – on June 22, 2005 – Professor Pettett strangled himself.

Mr Badenoch said the staff – who had earlier removed a glass flower vase from his bedside – should have realised the suicide threat.

Before his death Professor Pettett was moved from a single room into a ward with six other highly-disturbed patients, and Mr Badenoch said an internal inquiry later concluded this may have contributed to his suicide.

At an inquest the coroner reached the conclusion that Professor Pettett’s suicide had been contributed to by neglect.

Had medication been given time to work, and proper observation been kept on him, Mr Badenoch said the “overwhelming probability” was he would have made a full recovery.

Judge Holroyde approved the £550,000 settlement and ordered the trust to pay £75,000 on account of the final legal bills, which are likely to exceed £250,000.

A spokesman for the trust said: “Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust is pleased the settlement has been approved by the court, and brings the proceedings to a conclusion.”