Hospital closures unlawful

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The Independent Online
A cash-strapped health authority's decision temporarily to close in-patient services at two West Country cottage hospitals to save money was ruled unlawful and blocked by the High Court yesterday.

In what is being seen as a test case which could affect other health authorities, a judge ruled that North and East Devon Health Authority "erred in law" in failing to appreciate at an early stage that the closure proposals had triggered a duty to consult the public.

The judge said the duty arose last April, when it was clear that the threatened closures of Winsford and Lynton hospitals was under consideration.

Health chiefs did not formally decide to go ahead with the closures until June and then said that there would be no formal consultations with the community health council, or the public, because the cuts had to be made as an emergency measure to save pounds 215,000.

Mr Justice Moses said this was an error which "tainted" the closure decisions. There could be little doubt that by June the need to make savings "to balance the books" was urgent, as earlier estimates of the health authority's deficit had been "too optimistic". The amount had risen to pounds 2.2m.

Philip Engelman, for the health authority, had argued that the decision to dispense with consultation could not be impugned as "irrational" and unlawful because of the urgent need to make cuts. Disagreeing, the judge said the 1996 Community Health Council regulations "were clearly aimed at achieving sufficient time for proper consultation".

If a health authority "could allow time to pass to the point where matters were so urgent that there was no time left for consultation" it would seriously undermine the purpose of the specific regulation which allowed them to avoid consultation in emergency situations.

"It would permit a health authority, taking the view there was only one practicable solution, to pre-empt the result of proper consultation," said the judge, adding that "consultation has been given a low priority by health authorities recently".

The ruling was a victory for local residents dependent on the two hospitals who brought the successful High Court challenge, unofficially estimated to have cost the health authority pounds 15,000-pounds 20,000.

They included Andrea Baylis, from Cardingham, near Bodmin, who was opposing on behalf of her mother, Greta, a decision of North and East Devon HA to instruct Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust to close temporarily in- patient services at Winsford Hospital by 15 August at the latest.

The health authority faces having to go through a six-week consultation period over the proposed closures unless the ruling is overturned as the judge granted leave to appeal.