Jeremy Hunt acted unlawfully in trying to impose new contracts on junior doctors, the High Court was told today.
A claim for judicial review brought by the Justice for Health group – set up by five London medics – heard claims that the Health Secretary acted beyond his powers.
Jenni Richards QC, for the claimants, said Mr Hunt behaved as the “key decision-maker” and his statements about new contracts were “unequivocal” and “mandatory in nature”. She said: “This is a course that has been set in stone.”
She said he had also acted irrationally and had failed to communicate a clear and transparent decision when announcing in Parliament on July 6 his “decision” to introduce the contracts from next month.
Lawyers for Mr Hunt are expected to argue that he had only recommended the new contracts.
Mr Justice Green said: “This is clearly a serious case. It raises issues of public importance.”
With the NHS facing the threat of the first of a series of five-day strikes by the British Medical Association next month, the judge said he would aim to hand down judgement at midday on Wednesday next week.
A series of shorter strikes earlier this year has seen thousands of patients have clinics cancelled and operations postponed.
The new contracts would require more junior doctors to work new shift patterns, including at weekends, as part of Mr Hunt’s plans for a “seven-day NHS”.
Ms Richards told the packed courtroom: “We submit that he [Mr Hunt] has purported to express a power to determine or decide the terms on which junior doctors will be employed. We say he lacks the power to act as a decision-maker on which terms NHS bodies will employ junior doctors.
“We accept that the Secretary of State has the power to give a recommendation or express an opinion. We say he has plainly sought to go further than that.
“We submit the Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to take and communicate a clear and transparent decision.
“What this case is not about is the merits or demerits of the contract itself.”
Lawyers for Mr Hunt, who was not in court, are expected to argue that the Justice for Health claim is “entirely without merit” and misrepresents his intentions.
They will say that Mr Hunt has never purported to force NHS trusts to use the new contract but merely considers that it should be adopted and planned to work with NHS employers despite the opposition of the BMA.
The case was brought after five junior doctors – Ben White, Marie-Estella McVeigh, Amar Mashru, Francesca Silman and Nadia Masood – raised £300,000 from crowdfunding to cover legal fees.
The hearing is due to conclude tomorrow afternoon.
*An edited version of this article appears in later editions of tonight’s Evening Standard.