Judge dismisses legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s long waiting lists

A judge has dismissed court action taken by two women against the Department of Health over Northern Ireland’s lengthy waiting lists.

In Belfast High Court, Mr Justice Colton said the question of waiting times was one that required “high level political decisions” and was not a matter for the courts.

A judicial review had been brought by Eileen Wilson, a mother-of-six from east Belfast, and May Kitchen, a north Belfast pensioner alleging breach of statutory duty by the department and two health trusts over the length of time patients are waiting for treatment.

In the first case of the its kind in the UK, the two women had been seeking a judicial declaration that the length of the waiting lists are unlawful and breached their human rights.

Ms Wilson waited almost four years for a neurology appointment while Ms Kitchen paid for cataract surgery after waiting almost three years because she was afraid of losing her sight.

Delivering his judgment, the judge said: “These applications bring into focus what is widely regarded as a crisis facing the health service in this jurisdiction, namely the length of time patients are waiting for treatment.

“It does not need recourse to law to establish that such a crisis exists.”

The two women had contended that once an assessment of need had been made a duty of provision to provide the treatment arises.

The judge said: “It is clear from (the evidence) that there had been a series of efforts to provide solutions to the issue of waiting lists in this jurisdiction.

“The question of waiting times has been identified as a major priority by various ministers for health and by the department itself.

“What is involved in resolving the problem is a matter of contention. It clearly involves high level political decisions in relation to resources and also in relation to structural reform of the health service.

“Manifestly, that is not a matter for the courts.

“Whether the problems that arise in relation to waiting lists in the health service are caused by resource issues or strategic issues, or a combination of both is not something which can be measured by a legal standard.

“That is not a judgment which the courts can make.”

Royal Courts of Justice Belfast
The judgment was delivered at the High Court in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

The judge said that if he made a declaration against the department, or awarded damages, it could lead to multiple similar applications.

He said: “On what basis could the court distinguish these applicants from other members of the public who are currently on waiting lists for treatment by the health service?

“To do so would, in my view, not be in the public interest.

“The finite resources available to the respondents should be devoted to taking the necessary steps taken to deal with the question of waiting lists rather than defending expensive litigation in the public law sphere in which the courts are unsuited to make the necessary decisions.”

Northern Ireland has the worst waiting lists in the UK, with more than 300,000 people currently waiting on a consultant-led appointment – more than half of them waiting over a year.