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Dismissed: Junior doctors lose High Court challenge to new contracts

Junior doctors have suffered a major blow after the High Court yesterday (28 September) rejected a judicial review challenging the legality of a controversial new contract, handing a win to health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Brought by lobby group Justice for Health against the Secretary of State (SoS)’s decision to approve the terms of a new model contract for junior doctors, the dispute centred on whether the contract was ‘unsafe and unsustainable’ and that Hunt did not have the power to impose it.

The new contract had been agreed by the bodies representing junior doctors and NHS employers in negotiations but later rejected by the British Medical Association’s (BMA’s) members in a referendum.

Shortly after the referendum result in early July, Hunt stated he would proceed with the introduction of the contract that had been agreed by parties.

Five junior doctors subsequently fought that decision in the High Court but yesterday Mr Justice Green dismissed the case on three separate grounds, ruling that the health secretary had acted within the scope of his statutory powers by approving the new contract for junior doctors, and had not taken any decision to impose the contract on NHS employers.

As well as complying with his duties of transparency and good administration, Hunt had not acted irrationally according to the court. The new contract was intended to serve a ‘multiplicity of purposes’, not limited to reducing the problem of increased mortality rates at weekends. Hunt was also entitled to conclude that the new contract would contribute towards reducing that problem, by increasing the availability of junior doctors at weekends. The evidential basis on which he relied in coming to this conclusion was both ‘cogent and significant.’

Justice for Health has taken the result as a victory however, and noted part of the judgment which read: Following Hunt’s statement in parliament, junior doctors were led to understand that he intended to impose the disputed contract, excluding daylight for further negotiation. The [secretary] failed to spell out to parliament that it remains open to employers to choose to engage in negotiations with employees’ representatives, the BMA. There is now a public record of SoS’s acceptance he is not exercising any power of compulsion.’

Justice for Health co-founder Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh said: ‘In last minute legal acrobatics, judicial proceedings have forced Hunt to clarify his legal position: he is not imposing the junior doctors’ contract and never was.’

Despite this the new terms and conditions are set to be implemented next week and there is no indication hospitals won’t proceed.

The five doctors’ case was crowdfunded by £300,000 from about 10,000 donors, many of being fellow junior doctors.

11KBW trio Clive Sheldon QC and Joseph Barrett and Ronnie Dennis acted for the SoS, instructed by the government legal department. 11KBW’s Jason Coppel QC and Christopher Knight also took instructions on the case and acted for NHSE, with Capsticks.

In a statement 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.’