Junior doctors take trust to court for denying them breaks every four hours

Authors: Clare Dyer 

Publication date:  22 Feb 2018

A junior doctor has accused her former employer of breaching her contract by not allowing breaks every four hours, in a High Court test case with reverberations throughout the NHS.

Sarah Hallett is acting on behalf of herself and another 20 junior doctors who trained with Royal Derby Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in 2013-14, when she was in her foundation year. In a case supported by the BMA they argue that they did not receive the breaks they were entitled to.

At the Royal Courts of Justice in London, where the four day case opened on 20 February, John Cavanagh QC, representing Hallett, said, “This case is of general public importance . . . It is a test case which is of significance across the NHS.”

He told Mrs Justice Simler that NHS trusts were obliged to allow junior doctors a 30 minute rest period after every four hour working period. “If they do not have the opportunity to take these breaks, this affects their safety and welfare, with consequent effects on patient safety,” said Cavanagh.

NHS trusts that did not comply with the rules had to pay juniors double their normal rate for missed breaks, he told the court. But Hallett’s primary objective was not money, he said, but to make sure that NHS trusts met their contractual obligations.

“It is the responsibility of trusts to make sure that they do not run overly fatiguing or unsafe rotas,” he added. “Junior doctors who have to work for many hours in very stressful and high pressure conditions without even a short break will be exhausted, and this will potentially lead to risks to patient safety.”

If Hallett, who is a deputy chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee, wins her case and the 21 doctors claim compensation for the lost rest periods it could cost the trust £250 000 (€283 000; $349 000). Richard Leiper QC, representing the trust, said, “The potential cost to the trust, let alone to the NHS as a whole, would be dramatic.”

A trust spokesperson said, “This trial is simply about how Derby Teaching Hospitals monitored junior doctors’ working hours back in 2013. The approach we took mirrors that taken by a significant proportion of NHS trusts up and down the country.”

Clare Dyer The BMJ

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: