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High Court rejects appeal from family of locum GP who died on day off

A High Court judge has rejected an appeal against a ruling that a widower of a locum GP was not entitled to receive full pension payouts after his wife’s death.

Dr Helen Sanderson, a locum GP and member of the NHS pension scheme, died on 24 December 2014 – a day she was not working. 

A prior ruling by the Pensions Ombudsman found Dr Sanderson’s family was not entitled to the full death-in-service benefits she had accrued because she was not in practice on the day she died.

The BMA challenged the ruling at the High Court, but the judge has now dismissed the appeal on the grounds that Dr Sanderson died in ‘deferred service’ rather than in ‘pensionable service’.

The BMA said it was ‘clearly unfair’ that families of locum GPs who die on days they happen not to be working are only able to receive partial benefits and confirmed it would be lodging an appeal against the High Court decision.

The High Court heard that Dr Sanderson had been working the day before her death and was not booked for her next session until another two weeks.

Under the existing system, locums who die during pensionable service receive a lump sum payment of twice the member’s annual pensionable pay – while locums who pass away in deferred service get a lump sum that is three times the yearly rate of their preserved pension.

The family of Dr Sanderson have previously said this rule meant they were due to receive around £110,000 less in compensation than if they had been entitled to the full amount.

Meanwhile, partners and salaried GPs are covered on a continuous basis, with their families able to access their full death-in-service benefit regardless of when they die.

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In Dr Sanderson’s case, the BMA argued that she was still under contractual arrangements at the time of her death, despite being on a break for two weeks.

But the High Court judge’s ruling said: ‘In the present case, I do not consider that it is possible to say that Dr Sanderson was still engaged under a contract for services at the time of her death.

‘The break was for more than two weeks, albeit a period in which there were only eight working days, and there is no finding that she was occupied at that time under any contract for services whether by doing anything that amounted to direct performance of her duties or by carrying out activities that were in any way ancillary to those duties.’

Responding to the ruling, Dr Ben Molyneux, BMA sessional GPs Committee chair, said: ‘It’s so clearly unfair that the family of a hardworking GP can be denied their full death-in-service benefits simply based on the day they died – something that both the doctor and their loved ones obviously have no control over.

‘It would be like any other person dying at a weekend and their scheme not paying out because they were not working that day. It’s absurd.’

He added: ‘The BMA has been supporting Dr Sanderson’s widower in this case, and will appeal this ruling, so that locum GPs have the peace of mind that their families will get the support they are entitled to should the worst happen.’

The National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) said the ruling ‘underlines NHS Pensions’ intransigence in taking any steps to change its current death-in-service rules that so unfairly affect the financial well being of a GP locum’s grieving family’. 

NASGP chair Dr Richard Fieldhouse said: ‘I am terribly sad for Carl and his children, to have fought for over four years, with the full support of the BMA, to get to this stage, full of hope, but end up with absolutely nothing to show for it.’

Earlier this year the Government changed the rules for the way locum GPs pay into their pension by ‘annualising’ their earnings automatically – but the BMA warned this would push them into a higher tier of contributions.

Last month, the BMA revealed that GP locums can get around rules as long as they work with an OOH organisation that uses SOLO forms to submit pensions information.