Legal threat if hospital closes
By Patrick LowmanA HEALTH trust has been warned it will face legal action from patients if it decides to close a 68-bed hospital.The West Suffolk Hospitals Trust said it would be forced to close Walnuttree Hospital, Sudbury, if it failed an independent fire risk assessment.
By Patrick Lowman
A HEALTH trust has been warned it will face legal action from patients if it decides to close a 68-bed hospital.
The West Suffolk Hospitals Trust said it would be forced to close Walnuttree Hospital, Sudbury, if it failed an independent fire risk assessment.
But a law firm announced yesterday it would launch a legal fight against the trust on the behalf of two patients if the trust announces at its board meeting on Friday a plan to close the 168-year-old hospital.
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Leigh, Day and Co solicitors claimed the trust would be acting unlawfully if it went ahead with the closure and said it would seek a judicial review in the High Court to stop any running down of services until after the legal action had been completed.
It alleged the trust would be breaching the Heath and Social Care Act 2001 by failing to carry out a full and thorough public consultation over the hospital's future.
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The firm also claimed the trust would be in breach of Local Authority Regulations by not consulting the overview and scrutiny committee of the local authority in relation to a proposal for variation of health services.
A letter to the trust from Leigh, Day and Co said: “The trust has let it be known that closure is a strong possibility. We believe that such a decision would be unjustified and unlawful.
“We understand the trust has commissioned a new independent fire assessment, the findings of which will be a conclusive factor in their decision. Despite requests for the new assessment and interim reports, these have not been disclosed.
“We do not accept that such a risk exists so to excuse the duty to consult. Formal fire assessments have been carried out previously and the authorities have been fully aware for a considerable period of time that a fire risk exists.”
It added: “We also understand that previous assessments have concluded that the risk is manageable in the short to medium term, provided certain adjustments are made and precautions are taken.
“There has been no consultation with current service users, staff at the hospital or members of the general public. Hence no lawful decision can be made in relation to this issue on November 26.”
It has given the trust until Monday to provide a satisfactory response or it will start High Court proceedings.
Campaigners said the trust had promised to keep Walnuttree Hospital open until the new Sudbury Hospital is open, but fear it has now changed its mind to cut costs to preserve its bid for foundation status.
Leading campaigner, Michael Mandelstam, said: “We welcome the news of legal action as its purpose is to get the trust to take a measured and fully transparent decision and allow everybody to see what the reasons for closure really are.
“The trust has brought this on itself, the way it has handled the situation is totally unacceptable. We feel any decision to close the hospital would appear to be unjustified.”
The trust said it had been forced to reconsider its position because there was no longer a firm date for the opening of the new Sudbury Hospital.
The new hospital has been dogged by major delays due to the huge debts of the Suffolk West Primary Care Trust.
Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority said it would not reconsider the plan for the new hospital until March 2005, and only if the primary care trust has shown signs of financial recovery.
A spokesman for the West Suffolk Hospitals Trust said: “The trust has received the letter and we are mindful of the issues it raises.
“No decision has been made yet and the issue for the board will be around patient safety and the managing of the risks to patients and staff in the medium to long term.
“The trust will respond to the letter accordingly once the board has reached its decision on Friday.”