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Judges Can’t Mend Broken Working Relationships

Hospital CorridorThe power of judges does not extend to the mending of personal relationships, as a senior doctor discovered when the High Court refused to order his return to work almost four years after he was excluded from the operating theatre.

The surgeon had been excluded from all clinical areas of the hospital where he worked, including his own office. That came after a Royal College of Surgeons report described him as professionally arrogant, dismissive of others’ advice, over-confident in his own abilities and fundamentally lacking in insight.

In the years since, his abilities had been assessed and re-assessed and the General Medical Council (GMC) had found that most areas of his practice were ‘acceptable’. He had also scored highly in applied knowledge tests but the GMC did express concerns about his record keeping and ability to get on with colleagues.

The surgeon accepted that, given how long he had been away, he would need to be re-introduced gently to full clinical practice under supervision. However, a brief return to work had left some of his colleagues feeling ‘disconcerted and upset’ and attempts to find a placement for him at another hospital had proved fruitless.

The surgeon sued his NHS trust employers, claiming breach of contract. He asked the Court to direct his gradual return to work. In dismissing his claim, however, the Court found that his relationship with key colleagues had clearly broken down and that the Court was ‘simply not equipped’ to remedy that position.

Whilst acknowledging the ‘great human cost’ of the surgeon’s long-term absence from work, as well as the significant drain on public resources that entailed, the Court found that the trust was ‘reasonably entitled’ to view his continued exclusion as ‘necessary’. Even had the trust been found in breach of contract, the Court noted that it would not have ordered the hospital to take him back.