High court rejects appeal over locum death-in-service benefits

A High Court judge has rejected an appeal over the denial of death-in-service benefits to the widower of a locum GP who died on her day off.

High Court (Photo: Alphotographic/Getty Images)

BMA leaders said after the ruling that the current rules on death-in-service benefits for locum doctors were 'absurd' and that it was 'clearly unfair that the family of a hardworking GP can be denied their full death-in-service benefits simply based on the day they died'. 

Locum GP Dr Helen Sanderson died suddenly and without warning in December 2014 at the age of 40 from cardiomyopathy. She had worked as a salaried GP until April that year, but switched to locum work to spend more time with her two young daughters and continued to work sessions at a number of practices.

In an appeal backed by the BMA, her widower Carl Sanderson argued that, because his wife was booked in for 28 future locum sessions and was a member of the NHS pension scheme, she was ‘engaged’ under a contract for services and his family was entitled to full death-in-service benefits.

Pension rights

Judge Justice Trower ruled that 'a locum is not engaged under a relevant contract for services simply because he or she has one or more bookings for sessions at some stage in the future' - and that he did 'not consider that it is possible to say that Dr Sanderson was still engaged under a contract for services at the time of her death'.

Despite the ruling against Mr Sanderson, Judge Trower's conclusions made clear that locums' families were entitled to full death-in-service benefits if they died performing activities which were ‘incidental or ancillary’ to their 'contractual obligations'. The ruling makes clear that doctors are entitled to the full benefit in the event of death while travelling to work, commuting between practices or taking breaks - rather than solely during the session they were contracted to work.

BMA sessional GP committee chair Dr Ben Molyneux said: ‘It’s so clearly unfair that the family of a hardworking GP can be denied their full death-in-service benefits simply based on the day they died – something that both the doctor and their loved ones obviously have no control over.

Locum GPs

‘[The BMA] will appeal this ruling, so that locum GPs have the peace of mind that their families will get the support they are entitled to should the worst happen.’

Chairman of the National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGPs) Dr Richard Fieldhouse, said: ‘I am terribly sad for Carl and his children to have fought for over four years to get to this stage but then end up with absolutely nothing to show for it.

‘The government is trying to talk up the value of its GPs, encouraging more doctors to work as GPs yet, when doctors are working flexibly as locums, they are paying more for their pension than other GP colleagues and are receiving an inferior pension product.’

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