Campaigners win Leeds heart surgery legal challenge

Campaigner Sharon Cheng: "Voices of the people have been heard"

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Campaigners trying to keep child heart surgery in Leeds have won a legal challenge.

The High Court has ruled the consultation over changes to children's heart surgery in England and Wales was flawed.

Legal action was brought by campaigners trying to save operations at Leeds General Infirmary but the ruling could affect other units.

The team behind the NHS review said quashing its plans would be unfair.

The High Court judge backed claims by The Save our Surgery group (SOS) that the consultation process was unfair and legally flawed.

Sharon Cheng, from SOS, said the group was "extremely pleased and relieved".

'Clear injustice'

She said: "Winning this case in the High Court proves once and for all that the supposed consultation was a rubber-stamping exercise conducted with an outcome in mind, with clinicians, MPs and patients fooled into feeling they had influence.

"This action was taken by parents and clinicians who simply could not stand by and watch a clear injustice being done."

The Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) decided child heart surgery should also end at Leicester's Glenfield Hospital and London's Royal Brompton so care could be concentrated at fewer sites to improve standards.

The High Court ruling could also affect the future of surgery at those units.

Protesters in Leeds Demonstrations have been held in Leeds by people opposed to the decision

Sir Neil McKay, chairman of the JCPCT, said he was disappointed at the ruling.

In a statement he said: "The pressing need to reform children's heart services is long overdue and experts have cautioned that further delay in achieving the necessary change would be a major setback in improving outcomes for children with heart disease.

"The consultation - which we undertook with an honest and open mind - was the largest carried out by the NHS and respondents were staunch in their support of the need for change.

"There is nothing in the court's judgment that supports the claimant's accusations the consultation was a 'rubber stamping' exercise.

"The judge in fact found that this was a comprehensive consultation, lasting a matter of months and prompting 77,000 responses. Thought and care was given to the consultation process both as to its content and implementation.

The verdict over child heart surgery is just the latest twist in a long-running fight over the future of this complex area of care.

The debate has been raging for over a decade and has already been subject to legal challenges - a perfect illustration of why changing the NHS remains an incredibly tricky task.

The medical profession is united in the belief that expert care needs to be done at fewer sites.

Child heart surgery is the prime example of that - it is one of the most complex procedures undertaken by the NHS.

To provide a uniformly high quality and safe service operations in such fields need to be concentrated, it has been argued. Evidence shows this helps doctors improve skills and share expertise.

But the push for change is not just confined to child heart surgery. Similar debates are going on over everything from A&E units to stroke care.

The problem is change comes at a price: the loss of services from much-loved local hospitals.

The strength of feeling in Leeds - and in other places that face losing services for that matter - is testament to that.

These are difficult decisions and with money getting ever tighter in the health service expect more disputes in the future.

"We need to understand whether the court will quash the JCPCT's decision in its entirety, as the claimant seeks, or whether it will impose a less draconian remedy.

"We are making representations to the court that a quashing of the decision would be unfair and unnecessary.

"Once we have the court's judgment on this point we will strongly consider an appeal if we believe that this would enable us to reach a final decision on reconfiguring children's heart services in a reasonable timeframe."

The Prime Minister later said the choices on which cities would be centres for children's heart surgery must be based on clinical decisions.

David Cameron said the government would now have to study the High Court decision but the final "difficult choices" had to be fair and based on medical needs.

As part of the NHS review process, each hospital was visited by a panel of experts and given a score based on its performance.

SOS told the High Court the JCPCT had produced "sub-scores" measuring the quality of service under various criteria but had not disclosed them to consultees.

Independent review

In her judgment, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies said: "As the scores were relevant to the assessment, the breakdown of the scoring should have been disclosed to the centres whether or not the JCPCT proposed to look at it.

"If there is a public law duty to make information available to a consultee, disclosure cannot be denied simply because one party does not wish to look at that information."

The judge said a further court hearing would be held on 27 March to determine what the "remedy" would be following her ruling.

This could lead to the whole process being started again - or it could just mean the review team take a fresh look at the decision over Leeds.

An independent review of the NHS decision is also expected to report back to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the end of the month.

Nearly 600,000 people signed a petition against the decision to end surgery at the unit in Leeds, which treats children from across Yorkshire and the Humber region.

If the plan went ahead, children would instead have to travel to Newcastle or Liverpool for operations.

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