Government stripped of power to suspend pensions for doctors facing unproven charges

Controversial powers allowing the government to suspend pension payments for doctors accused - but not yet convicted - of a criminal offence have been overturned after a legal challenge by the BMA.

High Court (Photo: TK Kurikawa/Getty Images)
High Court (Photo: TK Kurikawa/Getty Images)

Following a judicial review launched by the BMA, a judgment handed down on 17 January by the High Court ruled that the changes brought in by the government breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

From April 2019, government powers were ramped up to allow the health and social care secretary to suspend the pensions of doctors charged with certain serious crimes.

Prior to that date, only once a doctor had been convicted of one of these serious crimes could the government 'direct that part or all of their pension benefits be forfeited'.

Natural justice

Medico-legal experts warned when the change took effect that it was 'against natural justice' - and the BMA warned that denying pension payments to doctors who had yet to be found guilty of any crime 'risks unfairly subjecting innocent members to hardship' and was 'neither necessary nor proportionate'.

The Hon Mrs Justice Andrews ruled that the updated regulations breached articles of the European Convention on Human Rights covering the right to a fair trial, protection from discrimination and the right to peaceful enjoyment of property.

The changes also fell foul of the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act by 'failing to have regard to the equality implications of the changes'.

Mrs Justice Andrews said the government had failed properly to distinguish between people charged with crime and convicted of crime, despite the legal principle that ‘every defendant to a criminal charge, however serious, and however compelling the evidence against him may appear, is presumed innocent until proved guilty to the criminal standard’.

NHS pensions

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'Today’s judgment is a victory for our members and for all NHS professionals across England and Wales who could have been unlawfully deprived of their pensions benefits had these rules remained in place.

'We could not allow the government to simply disregard the fundamental principle that a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. These rules assume guilt from the outset with little regard for the impact on a doctor’s well-being, career or personal life.

'From the evidence presented it is clear the government made no assessment, or worse just disregarded, the potential effect this rule change would have on those who are retired and already drawing on their pensions and those who are older, ill or disabled.

'We welcome today’s judgment and on behalf of our members we are glad that these regulations, which should never had been approved in the first place, will now be struck from the statute book.'

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'We are considering the implications of the court’s judgment.'

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