Jeremy Hunt acted illegally over junior doctors, court hears

Legal challenge brought by five trainees over health secretary’s decision to impose new contract begins in high court

Jeremy Hunt acted illegally and beyond his powers by deciding to impose a new contract on NHS junior doctors, the high court has been told in a legal challenge to the health secretary’s handling of the year-long dispute.

The court on Monday began a two-day judicial review of the legal challenge to Hunt brought by five junior doctors.

Their group, Justice for Health, claims that the health secretary has acted ultra vires (beyond his powers) by choosing to force new terms and conditions on 54,000 trainee medics in England despite their overwhelming opposition.

A barrister leading Hunt’s legal team told the judge, Mr Justice Green, that there was no evidence that NHS employers did not want the contract and that the claim was “wholly without substance”.

Hunt suffered an early setback when the judge rejected a claim by his counsel, Clive Sheldon QC, in pre-hearing legal argument that Justice for Health’s claims should be thrown out. Refusing Sheldon’s plea, Green said at the outset of the first session of legal argument that “this is plainly a serious case” which, in his view, “requires full judicial review”.

Green planned to issue his judgment on 28 September, he said, days before junior doctors across England are due to take part in the first five-day strike in the long-running dispute. The strike is planned to start on 5 October, the day the contract is due to be imposed on all trainee doctors below consultant level. The six previous walkouts held since January have lasted one or two days.

Justice for Health, whose action has received £300,000 in crowdfunding from 10,000 supporters, wants the court to overturn Hunt’s decision to use what he called his “nuclear option” of imposition, and rule that he broke the law in choosing to push it through.

Its legal argument states that the campaign group, consisting of Dr Nadia Masood, Dr Ben White, Dr Francesca Silman, Dr Amar Mashru and Dr Marie-Estella McVeigh, “seeks an order quashing the decision of the secretary of state; [and] declarations that the secretary of state had no power to make the decision which he purported to make on 6th July 2016, that the purported imposition was unlawful and that the secretary of state has acted unlawfully”.

Jenni Richards QC, for Justice for Health, said that while Hunt was entitled to recommend a contract, he did not have the power to impose one. The health secretary had “acted in breach” of his “requirements of transparency, certainty and clarity” and behaved “irrationally”, she told the court.

The junior doctors claim that, despite stating publicly when the dispute began last year that he was imposing the contract, Hunt had then switched tack and insisted he had merely made a non-binding recommendation that revised conditions of employment.

Richards also claimed that Hunt had ignored a series of studies of mortality rates among patients admitted to hospital when he began claiming in July 2015 that as many as 11,000 patients a year admitted on a Saturday or Sunday die unnecessarily because too few doctors are on duty – the “weekend effect”.

Giving evidence for Hunt, Sheldon said the secretary of state had decided not to “compel” NHS employers to use the new contract, but to “approve” it. “This case is redundant,” Sheldon told the judge. “There is no evidence at all that there is any NHS employer who doesn’t wish to introduce these new contracts.”


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Jeremy Hunt to impose new contract on junior doctors
Health secretary says introduction of contract will go ahead in October, after doctors rejected it in ballot

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

06, Jul, 2016 @3:14 PM

Article image
Pressure mounts on Jeremy Hunt over handling of junior doctors’ dispute
Health secretary retreats from claim he has right to impose contract – but threat may mean he has misled parliament

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

17, Apr, 2016 @7:08 PM

Article image
Junior doctors' contract dispute: has Jeremy Hunt won?
The ins and outs of the deal imposed by the health secretary

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

11, Feb, 2016 @7:17 PM

Article image
Junior doctors reject 'misleading' pay offer and criticise Jeremy Hunt
BMA committee says offer is insufficient and accuses health secretary of using ‘megaphone diplomacy’ instead of genuine negotiation

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

04, Nov, 2015 @7:45 PM

Article image
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell join striking junior doctors
Labour leader and shadow chancellor march with thousands to Whitehall to demand action from Jeremy Hunt

Lisa O'Carroll and Ben Quinn

26, Apr, 2016 @5:28 PM

Article image
Jeremy Hunt digs in as junior doctors announce new strike
British Medical Association announces 24-hour strike after talks with government fail to reach agreement over new contracts

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

01, Feb, 2016 @7:27 PM

Article image
Junior doctors prepare for fresh talks over contracts
Chief executive of Manchester Royal Infirmary urged not to impose contract even if ordered to do so by Jeremy Hunt

Josh Halliday

09, May, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
Junior doctors’ strike set to go ahead as Jeremy Hunt rejects compromise
NHS hospitals finalise plans to cope with unprecedented strikes after health secretary describes proposal by cross-party group of MPs as ‘opportunism’

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

25, Apr, 2016 @7:31 AM

Article image
Junior doctors demand more concessions from Jeremy Hunt
More than 2,000 medics and students tell health secretary days after he tried to defuse anger that proposed contracts are unfair and risk patient safety

James Meikle

11, Oct, 2015 @6:22 PM

Article image
New NHS contract will worsen shortage of junior doctors, Jeremy Hunt told
Trainee doctors group says changes to terms and conditions present ‘immediate risk to provision of healthcare’ and will weaken NHS for generations

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

23, Sep, 2015 @11:01 PM