Judicial review granted over Downe A&E closure
Campaigners have won the right at the High Court to challenge the closure of 24-hour accident and emergency services at the Downe Hospital.
A judge has granted leave to seek a judicial review of the health minister's decision to restrict the casualty care at the hospital.
The accident and emergency unit was closed overnight from April, less than two years after the hospital opened.
GPs have provided out-of-hours cover at the £64m facilities in Downpatrick.
The attempt to have the decision reversed has been taken in the name of John Duggan, a former chairman of the hospital support group, with the backing of Down District Council.
His barrister, David Scoffield, argued that there had been a recognition by the Department of Health that 24-hour A&E services were needed for the local rural population.
He told the court the decision in February to close the department at night was taken just over a year after the hospital opened in 2009.
"This is a matter of grave concern to many who live in the area, particularly those in ill-health, such as the applicant," Mr Scoffield said.
"The decision to build a new hospital at vast public expenditure and then immediately undermine it... is irrational."
The decision taken by the South Eastern Trust and approved by the minister was said to be necessary because of a shortage of middle-grade doctors.
Paul McLaughlin, responding for the department, told the court it was a problem affecting the provision of emergency services nationwide.
"The ultimate disaster for all hospitals is unplanned closures," he said.
Mr McLaughlin pointed out that this had happened twice at other Northern Ireland hospitals in the last 18 months.
"This is a problem driven by a lack of suitable, qualified doctors," he added.
"What the trust did was identify a very novel and perhaps unique solution to managing emergency care during night-time hours.
"The result of this is the unit actually remains open rather than closed."
However, Mr Justice Treacy granted leave to seek a judicial review after ruling that an arguable case had been established on all grounds of challenge.
The case has been listed for a two-day hearing in December.