The long running saga of the 5 NHSPS ‘test cases’ regarding service charges has reached a conclusion. The case has been much hyped by all parties, to the extent that it was named as one of the ‘top 20 litigation cases of 2022’ by one excited journalist. Many practices in NHSPS buildings have been waiting for the outcome of the case, in the hope that it would lead to a resolution of their problems with disputed service charges. In the event, the case has proved less useful than many had hoped. The judge has made clear that he does not consider it to be a test case, and that each dispute will turn on its own facts. In essence, the judge concluded that a tenancy is a contract, and that each practice is therefore bound by the particular agreed or implied terms of their occupation. What is perhaps most surprising, is that this outcome should come as a surprise to anyone.
This rather complicated litigation started when the BMA sought to bring an action on behalf of 5 practices who were tenants in various NHSPS properties, asking the Court to confirm that certain standard policies operated by NHSPS to calculate service charges had not been incorporated into the terms of the tenancies. The court refused to make a declaration to this effect, but NHSPS admitted that they could not simply change the terms of a tenancy to include the policies and a ‘victory’ of sorts was declared. This was however short-lived as NHSPS took the opportunity to countersue the 5 practices for arrears of service charges. It is this counterclaim which has now been determined. NHSPS was seeking over £1m in overdue service charges from the 5 ‘test case’ practices and claims that it is, in total, owed over £175m by its GP tenants. It is clear that very significant sums are at stake.
The facts of each of the 5 tenancies are subtly different, which was undoubtedly why they were chosen for the BMA as a ‘test case’. The main thing they have in common is a general lack of documentation and rigour around any of the normal legal processes. As a result the judge had to untangle a complex web of poorly documented issues relating to each building, including: What demise does the practice actually occupy now and in the past? Which partners have been/are tenants and are therefore liable? What are the terms of occupation? What services have been, and should have been, provided by NHSPS? To what extent did payments made represent an ‘all-inclusive rent’? Were service charges capped or in some other way limited by agreement, including by historic agreement with a PCT? Are any of the claims time-barred?
Probably the most important message from the judgement is that as an ordinary landlord, NHSPS has the right to recover a reasonable service charge for the services which it delivers. None of the practices were able to successfully argue that they should be receiving discounted or free services from their landlord, or that their rent was somehow ‘all-inclusive’. That is not to say that other practices cannot succeed with such an argument, but it would require solid evidence that such an agreement existed rather than simply relying on an absence of evidence. In the words of the judgment: “the law, where appropriate, has to step in and fill the gaps in a way which is sensible and reasonable. The law will imply, from what was agreed and all the surrounding circumstances, the terms the parties are to be taken to have intended to apply”.
The judgment did not determine how much of the £1m claimed from the 5 ‘test cases’ was actually recoverable, but it did set out the parameters by which the amount payable should be calculated. It is thus clear that the 5 practices have a significant service charge liability to NHSPS. However the judge went out of his way to make clear this cannot be seen as a precedent for other practices:
“There has been some reference to these five actions as test cases for other disputes over service charges which may arise between the Defendant and other GP practices. While I express the hope that this judgment will assist the Defendant and other GP practices in resolving disputes over services charges without the need for expensive litigation, I would be wary of classifying these five actions as test cases. As this lengthy judgment demonstrates, and as I have already said in this judgment, the resolution of a service charge dispute in any particular case essentially depends upon the evidence and arguments in that case. This is one of the principal reasons why, for reasons which I have endeavoured to explain in making my decision on whether the Charging Policy Declarations should be made, I do not think that it is sensible for any GP practice to adopt what I would describe as a policy of non-engagement; by which I mean refusing to pay service charges pending explanation of the position by the Defendant. As I have said, it seems to me that a more constructive approach would be for GP practices to take their own advice on the position, and to put their particular case to the Defendant on what is and is not recoverable by way of service charges.”
What, therefore, should practices facing NHSPS service charge disputes do now?
1) Don’t ignore the problem as it is very unlikely to just ‘go away’. Having now proven that there is no blanket ‘NHS exemption’ to paying service charges, it would be surprising if NHSPS simply wrote off the £175m it believes it is owed.
2) You should be paying a reasonable amount for the services that you receive from NHSPS, unless you can clearly demonstrate an agreement to pay less. You should accrue accordingly and pay non disputed charges.
3) If you do not agree with a service charge demand, you should challenge it in writing and explain why you believe it is incorrect. For example, why should you pay for a gardener when there is no garden, for a window cleaner who never turns up, or ‘above the going rate’ for a plumber?
4) Gather as much documentation as you can and store it safely. Since any documentation gaps can be filled by the courts, you want to have as much evidence to hand as possible.
5) Make sure your Partnership Deed is clear about what happens when partners join and leave. Your liabilities to the landlord do not automatically cease when retiring from the partnership unless the lease is assigned (which is difficult if the tenancy is undocumented), so retirees will want indemnities from the continuing partners. Likewise incoming partners will want certainty that they will not be liable for charges relating to the period before they joined, and that a suitable retention is in place for disputed charges.
6) Engage with NHSPS to get your situation ‘regularised’. For most practices this will mean that it makes sense to get a lease agreed, but this should be done in tandem with sorting out disputed historic service charges. It is in everyone’s interest to avoid further expensive litigation, so there will be deals to be done.
7) Most importantly, seek specialist advice. When it comes to buildings, no two buildings and (thus no two leases) are the same. If you start negotiating without proper legal advice, you risk giving away important legal rights without securing anything in return. The most likely outcome for all practices now is a negotiated settlement with NHSPS, but this will be very difficult unless you understand the strength of your negotiating position. With so much money at stake, skimping on advice is likely to prove a false economy.
At DR Solicitors we have very deep experience and success acting for GP tenants who are in dispute with their NHSPS landlord. We understand the issues, and the areas where negotiation is likely to prove most fruitful. Our new partnership deed also addresses these NHSPS issues. Please contact Daphne Robertson or Sue Carter on 01483 511555 for a free initial conversation about your NHSPS surgery issues.