Belfast Telegraph

Watchdog 'had authority to deal with doctor complaint about proposed land deal for new surgery'

A public body watchdog had legal authority to deal with a doctor's complaint about a proposed land deal for building a new surgery, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Treacy rejected a claim by Armagh City and District Council that it was wrong for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints to look into the grievance lodged on behalf of Willowbank Surgery in Keady.

The complaint was made in May 2007 by one of the GPs who works at the practice.

It centred on the Council's actions in the proposed sale of land it owned to the doctors for constructing a replacement surgery.

The Council argued that GPs are independent self-employed practitioners who have contracts of service with the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).

It claimed they receive public money from Parliament which excludes them from complaining to the Commissioner.

But Mr Justice Treacy held this to be too simplistic a basis upon which to exclude the doctors.

In a preliminary ruling which forms part of a wider judicial review challenge to a report into the complaint, he agreed with the Commissioner that there is a fundamental distinction.

It is the means by which money is received, not the source of the revenue, which is the determinative factor, the judge said.

He pointed out if the Council's interpretation of the legislation was correct, it would leave doctors, dentists and pharmacists without recourse to the Commissioner should they be subjected to maladministration by a public body.

"In the absence of such a safeguard those health professionals would be required to seek a remedy either by civil action or judicial review, even when a complaint would be more appropriate," he said.

The judge added that it would also produce a "bizarre" consequence of GPs who set up a private clinic being able to pursue a complaint while doctors contracted to the HSCB would not.

"The applicant (Council)'s approach would deny access to any independent contractor whose revenue was largely derived from public funds," he said.

"Taken to its logical conclusion the respondent (Commissioner) says it might preclude lawyers whose sole or principle source of income was from the legal aid fund and those who lived on social security benefits from making a complaint to the respondent."

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