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Junior doctors lose legal challenge against health secretary over contract

Judge rejects all three grounds of the case

Caroline White

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Junior doctors have lost their High Court battle to bring health secretary Jeremy Hunt to book over the imposition of their new contract, but insist that they have forced him to clarify his position on its implementation.

Five junior doctors, who formed the campaign group Justice for Health, mounted a legal challenge against the secretary of state on the grounds that he had acted outside of his powers; that he had failed in his duty of clarity to parliament and the public; and that he had been irrational in his decision making in respect of the new contract.

The two-day case was heard in the High Court last week. But in the ruling issued today the judge rejected all three grounds.

A Department of Health spokesperson 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."

In his ruling, the judge pointed out that “one significant consequence of this litigation” has been the opportunity for the health secretary “to put his position beyond doubt.”

He said: “First, the Secretary of State does not purport to exercise any statutory power that he may have to compel employers within the NHS to introduce the proposed terms and conditions. Second, he acknowledges, therefore, that in principle individual employers are free to negotiate different terms with employees…”

Nevertheless, he accepted that junior doctors “were in genuine doubt as to whether or not there was any negotiating daylight left following the Minister’s statement and, further, construed the Statement as entailing the Secretary of State compelling introduction or implementation of the contract and thereby eradicating further negotiating options.”

Justice for Health insists the health secretary only provided clarification at the last moment, despite previous requests from doctors, politicians and the Justice for Health legal team.

In a statement, the campaign group said: “We have worked very hard to get this case to court and we are thankful to have had the opportunity to hold Mr Hunt to account. The judicial review proceedings were necessary to gain clarity in the law and force Mr Hunt to answer for his conduct.”

The statement continued: “We hope it sets a precedent for better ministerial conduct and deters the [Secretary of State] from making statements about imposition on other NHS staff groups.”

But Justice for Health has not ruled out the possibility of further legal challenges and campaigns on behalf of NHS staff and patients.

“Whilst we hoped for the top result, we have met our initial goal to extract clarity from the [the Secretary of State] and will now move on. We resolve to help the BMA to exert legal pressure in any way possible to combat the exploitation of NHS staff and annihilation of good quality patient care we have witnessed at the hands of this Health Secretary,” the statement concluded.

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