Judges consider hospital cuts case
Monday 28th October 2013, 12:11AM GMT.
A legal battle over plans to cut services at a successful hospital reached the Court of Appeal today.
Despite travel disruption, supporters of Lewisham Hospital in south east London filled a courtroom for a challenge by the Government against a ruling that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s move to downgrade A&E and maternity services was “unlawful”.
Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls, sitting with Lord Justice Sullivan and Lord Justice Underhill, are being asked to rule that a High Court judge went wrong in law in reaching his findings.
The Health Secretary was attempting to deal with problems created by the financial collapse of neighbouring South London Healthcare NHS Trust, which went into administration after it started losing more than £1 million a week.
Quashing Mr Hunt’s decision in July, Mr Justice Silber declared that he had breached provisions of the National Health Services Act 2006.
The ruling was a serious blow for Mr Hunt because the case involved the first legal testing of a new Government procedure for dealing with failing NHS organisations – referred to as the Unsustainable Providers Regime.
Under the new regime, Mr Hunt had appointed a Trust Special Administrator (TSA) to the “very badly performing” South London Healthcare Trust.
To help deal with the problem, the special administrator recommended measures including cuts at Lewisham Hospital. Mr Hunt told Parliament in January that A&E and maternity services at the hospital would be downgraded.
Mr Hunt assured MPs the changes would improve patient care in south London, saving up to 100 lives a year, but gave an undertaking not to implement them pending the legal challenge.
At the Court of Appeal today Rory Phillips QC, for the Health Secretary and the Trust Special Administrator, argued that they had not acted outside their powers.
He challenged Mr Justice Silber’s findings that the TSA was not entitled to recommend the changes to the services at Lewisham and that Mr Hunt was not entitled to decide to implement them.
Referring to the 2006 Act, he said that its “wording, statutory context and purpose” should have led Mr Justice Silber “to conclude that they were entitled so to act, consistently with Parliament’s evident intention”.
Before the hearing, a Department of Health spokeswoman said: “The proposed changes to Lewisham hospital are just one aspect of a package of measures which we believe are in the best long-term interests of patients and the public across south east London.
“South London Healthcare NHS Trust has been running at a loss of about £1 million a week – that’s money that has to be diverted from frontline patient care.
“So of course we were disappointed by the High Court decision to block the changes – and we have now appealed (against) this decision.”
The department will continue with other elements of the process, including the dissolution of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust.
Louise Irvine, a local GP and chairwoman of the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, said: ” We have now been fighting to keep our hospital safe for the people of Lewisham for over a year.”
She said: “The clinical and economic evidence shows that we have right on our side – we hope and trust that the Court of Appeal will prove that we continue to have a legal right to save Lewisham Hospital, too.”
July’s ruling was won by Lewisham Council and the campaign, an umbrella group supported by patients, community groups, GPs, hospital doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow.