Junior doctors lose High Court case against health secretary Jeremy Hunt

A High Court judge has ruled against a group of junior doctors who argued that Jeremy Hunt abused his power in making his decision to impose the junior doctor contract that was rejected by the BMA.

Justice for Health: Dr Ben White, Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh, Dr Amar Mashru, Dr Francesca Silman and Dr Nadia Masood
Justice for Health: Dr Ben White, Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh, Dr Amar Mashru, Dr Francesca Silman and Dr Nadia Masood

The junior doctors' group Justice for Health argued on three points that the health secretary ‘abused’ his powers, ‘failed in his duty of clarity’ to parliament and the public and was ‘irrational in his decision making’.

Judge Mr Justice Green concluded on ground one that Mr Hunt's decision 'fell squarely within the scope of his lawful powers'.

He added that there was 'no lack of clarity or transparency' in the decision 'when all the relevant material is read objectively and in its proper context'.

On the third point, he said Mr Hunt had 'acted rationally and was within the margins of his legitimate discretion in taking the action he did'.

But Justice for Health said the High Court case had forced Mr Hunt to publicly admit that he could not impose the contract and had never meant to suggest he was – an admission that became integral to his defence.

Mr Hunt’s legal team further argued that the health secretary could not be held accountable for remarks made in the ‘rough and tumble and hurly burly of parliamentary debate’.

The judge ruled he was not entitled to hide behind parliamentary privilege in this way, but it was up to parliament, not the court, to decide whether it had been misled by him.

High Court case

Justice for Health was established by five junior doctors including GP trainees Dr Francesca Silman and Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh, as well as Dr Nadia Masood, Dr Ben White and Dr Amar Mashru.

The court case was held over two days last week from Monday 19 to Tuesday 20 September. Justice for Health told GPonline after the first day that they were hopeful of victory after putting forward a 'very compelling argument'.

Justice for Health said: 'Mr Hunt’s last minute legal acrobatics have saved him from losing the case but bring no comfort to the thousands affected by his actions in the last year.

'He did not previously clarify his position when faced with thousands of cancelled operations, a devastated workforce or a health service in chaos, but instead, only when his actions faced High Court scrutiny.'

Junior doctor contract

Bindmans, the law firm that represented Justice for Health, said: ‘Justice for Health are satisfied that they were performing a public service in pursuing this litigation and that most importantly  their doctor colleagues as well as employers now understand the true legal position – there is no contract which has been imposed on them. Employees and employers can discuss and negotiate terms.

‘They have established importantly that the principles of transparency and clarity apply and also as to the limits of parliamentary privilege. This will help others in the future.’

A DH spokeswoman said: ‘We welcome this clear decision by the judge that the secretary of state acted entirely lawfully.

'We must now move on from this dispute to the crucial job of making sure patients get the same high standards of urgent and emergency care every day of the week, which involves more than the junior doctors’ contract. 

'We urge the BMA to remove all threat of further industrial action so we can work constructively with junior doctors to address their wider concerns and better recognise their vital importance to the NHS.’

Justice Green said: ‘The grounds advanced by junior doctors were serious and properly arguable, raised important points of principle about the powers of the secretary of state under the NHSA 2006 and as to the manner in which he should act in exercising those powers, and generally raised an issue of wider public importance.’

The junior doctor contract is set to be introduced from this October. The BMA has said it is ‘planning a range of actions in order to resist’ the contract, after it scrapped plans to take all-out strike action for five days apiece every month.

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