Our Team


Dealing with property in a GP practice merger

There is a lot to think about when merging practices. Issues include transfer of staff by TUPE, creating joint accounts, agreeing profit shares, drafting a new Partnership Agreement, aligning ways of working, dealing with the CQC and NHS England, and more.

With so much to think about and with limited time and resources, merging practices are often tempted to put the properties to one side to be dealt with later. In this post we explain why it’s best to have a plan for managing property issues from the outset.

But nothing is going to change?

We are often told that the surgeries will ‘just stay as they are’, or that their ownership can be kept outside of the new partnership. However, it’s not that simple and by taking no action you risk hitting problems later.

A merger involves changing business vehicles. Generally speaking, two or more partnerships become a new, single partnership and most of the legacy business vehicles disappear. Each of the legacy partnerships would have had rights of occupation in their surgery, whether as tenant, licensee, owner occupier, or some combination of all these. Post merger, even if exactly the same partners and staff are working in each building, the occupier will be the new merged partnership.

The consequences of this are significant. Regardless of who has their name on the title at the Land Registry and whether the surgery is freehold or leasehold, the new partnership will acquire rights and obligations associated with the building from the very first day post merger. Examples can include; rights of occupancy; tax liabilities; problems with NHS premises funding; implications for mortgage financing; breaches of covenants, and; unexpected changes in value.

Such problems typically lie ‘dormant’ for some time, before emerging and creating a crisis. When this happens and has the inevitable financial consequences, the partners who were around at the time of the merger may be long gone and it becomes difficult to attribute the resultant costs.

Some questions you need to consider:

  • How are the premises currently owned and occupied?
  • How will they be owned and occupied following the merger?
  • Will any premises be closing and if so, what are the implications?
  • Do you need to seek prior approval from NHS England for changes in occupancy/use? (see our article Don’t put your premises funding at risk)
  • How are the new owners/occupiers going to be tied into any leasehold obligations?
  • How will the changes impact on any mortgage financing and do you need mortgagor consent?
  • Do you need to obtain landlord’s consent?
  • Is there an impact on the amount of premises funding?
  • Tax impacts, such as, stamp duty land tax (SDLT), capital gains tax)

Our recommendations

Our advice is to do your homework in plenty of time before the merger and ensure you undertake appropriate due diligence on all the properties involved. Once you understand the implications of the proposed changes you can consider your options for mitigating the problems. Doing nothing is certainly an option, but it is unlikely to be the best one.

Remember that the Surgery is almost always the most valuable asset in a GP Practice. It therefore pays to get professional advice to protect it and maximise its value.

For more information about practice mergers, property, or any other enquiries, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 511555 or email d.robertson@drsolicitors.com  

Our Team


Can your patient list be ‘open but full’?

From funding cuts, to an aging population and the increasing demands being placed on primary care services, GP practices face ever increasing pressure.

Balancing growing patient numbers with resource constraints can prove a challenge and may lead some practices to consider restricting the growth of their patient list.

Can such a move ever be justified and what could the potential implications be?

The regulations

Current regulations specify that a GP practice must provide:

  • Essential services to all registered patients and temporary residents
  • Primary medical services for an accident or emergency situation happening in the practice area within core working hours
  • Immediate treatment when necessary of any person whose application for inclusion on the patient list has been refused but who is not yet registered with another provider

For an individual to apply to join your patient list, they must live within the practice area, or be entitled to seek acceptance as a temporary resident.

A practice with an open patient list may only refuse an application to join their list if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ for doing so.

Capping a list

Much of the discussion around refusing to register patients focuses on the definition of reasonable grounds. The rules are clear that the following would not be reasonable grounds to refuse: age; appearance; disability or medical condition; gender or gender reassignment; marriage or civil partnership; pregnancy or maternity; race; religion or belief; sexual orientation; or social class.

Examples provided which might be reasonable grounds for refusal include an applicant living in the outer boundary area, or if they have previously been removed from the list – particularly if this was because of a history of violence.

This obviously leaves some uncertainty around the reasonableness of other possible grounds, and some commentators have suggested that staffing shortages and resource constraints would be sufficient grounds to refuse all new applications. This is sometimes known as ‘open but full’ or ‘list capping’.

To informally cap a list by refusing to register new patients, your reason for doing so must be extremely serious. For example, if a practice strongly believes that registering more patients will overstretch its ability to provide the necessary services, it may be arguable that patient safety is at risk. This situation could, in theory, justify a short-term list closure but a practice would be well advised to further justify their decision with some analysis of the risk.

However, should you routinely start refusing to register new patients then you may find yourself on shaky ground. You will need to show you are actively working on a solution, such as seeking help or getting in additional resources, and doing all you can to resolve the problem.

Closing a list

If the problems you are facing are very severe and no short-term solution looks likely, then a formal closure of the list should be pursued. To do so, you would need to make an application to NHSE for their approval to close it for a period of between 3 and 12 months.

Such applications should never be entered into lightly. They require a great amount of detail to be supplied about the difficulties being experienced in delivering services, the help that NHSE may be able to give to alleviate those difficulties and also any discussions that have been had with existing patients.

The regulations do not spell out the exact grounds on which the closure of a list may be justified, but in these difficult times NHS England will likely seek to rigorously challenge your application.

In summary

A practice may potentially justify what amounts to an informal list closure without applying for a formal list closure, if the circumstances are deemed serious enough – such as putting patient safety at risk – and if the problem is perceived as short-term.

However, capping a patient list should only ever be seen as an extreme and temporary measure, as otherwise the list closure process should be followed.

If you’re at all concerned, we would generally recommend you contact your LMC in the first instance to discuss the problems you are facing and see what help and support is available to you.

For more information about practice management, or any other enquiries, please contact Nils Christiansen on 01483 511555 or email n.christiansen@drsolicitors.com  

Our Team


Should your surgery building be held as a partnership asset?

A surgery building is one of the most valuable assets a GP practice may own, so it is important to understand the implications of how it is held. Partners need to be clear whether their property is held as a partnership asset or not. The answer can have significant implications in relation to ownership rights and obligations, occupancy and even tax.

The nature of partnership assets is complex, but we have summarised some of the main features of holding the building inside and outside the partnership:

1. When the surgery building is held by the partnership

As a partnership has no ‘legal personality’ it cannot hold property in its own name. Partnership property, therefore, has to be held on trust.

If a surgery is held as a partnership asset the legal owner(s), who are generally those named at the Land Registry, hold the surgery on trust for the ‘beneficial owners’ who are all the partners in the partnership. There is often reference in GP partnerships to ‘owning partners’ and ‘non-owning partners’, but the starting point in law is that all partners are equal owning partners unless there is evidence that something else has been agreed.

It is of course very commonly the case that some partners have a greater interest in the surgery than others, or that some partners have no ownership interest at all, but if the surgery is a partnership asset this will need to be stated. This means it is critical that all rights and entitlements in the building are documented. Otherwise, there is likely to be scope for confusion and disputes over your most valuable asset.

2. When the surgery building is held outside the partnership

If the building is held outside of the GP partnership, then it is generally much clearer who owns it.

The ‘legal owners’ named at the Land Registry will normally have full ownership rights and be entitled to make decisions such as when to sell or develop it, and be entitled to rent from the partnership occupying it.

However, in this scenario clarity needs to be given over the basis on which the partnership is occupying the building. This could, for example, be via a lease, a licence, or documented in the partnership agreement. Without this being documented, non-owning partners are potentially vulnerable.

Our recommendations

1. Know where you stand

It is essential that all partners understand if the property is held as a partnership asset or not. This should normally be clear from the partnership agreement and supported by the accounts.

2. Check how things have been documented

Next, you need to check that suitable documentation is in place. This should cover the ownership and occupancy of the property. It is always advisable to seek the advice of an experienced legal team here, to ensure all documentation is fit for purpose and up to date.

3. Understand how the situation can change

Finally, be aware that there are situations where a surgery building may ‘accidentally’ move in and out of a partnership. This can have very significant implications, such as for NHS Premises Funding and for Stamp Duty Land Tax. (For more details on this topic, see Are you liable for a ‘hidden retirement tax’?)

When it comes to property owned by a GP partnership, sadly it’s not as straightforward as simply having your name on the deeds. It is a complex area of law and having the right documentation in place is crucial, if you’re to guard against potential disputes in the future.

For more information about partnership deeds and assets, or any other related issue, please contact Daphne Robertson on 01483 511555 or email d.robertson@drsolicitors.com