Muckamore Abbey Hospital: Abuse inquiry lawfully entitled to access patient files
Mr Justice Scoffield rejected claims that requests for disclosure were procedurally unfair and breached privacy rights of those being treated at the facilities in Antrim.
But he also identified a need to inform patients if their records are obtained.
The judge held: “Parliament has struck a balance which allows public inquiries properly investigating matters of significant public concern to abrogate obligations of confidentiality because of the overriding public interest in such inquiries being able to carry out their work.”
Muckamore Abbey, run by the Belfast Health Trust, provides care for adults with learning difficulties and mental health issues.
The hospital has been at the centre of a major police investigation into claims that vulnerable patients were subjected to ill-treatment.
An ongoing public inquiry chaired by Tom Kark KC is examining the allegations of abuse separately.
Earlier this year the tribunal issued the trust with a patient document request (PDR) for the notes and records of a man at the centre of the legal challenge.
Lawyers representing his mother claimed they were given no say in the process.
A judicial review challenge was launched in a bid to have the PDR declared unlawful.
The request is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it was contended.
Counsel for the family stressed they were not fundamentally opposed to any disclosure, but wanted to work with the inquiry and be part of the process.
But he disputed the procedural fairness in attempting the medical documents without the family’s knowledge, consent or involvement at any stage.
The inquiry emphasised that it exercised powers to require the production of the requested documents to just its panel and no-one else.
Dismissing the legal challenge, Mr Justice Scoffield highlighted the investigative powers provided to ensure a searching and thorough investigation within the relevant terms of reference.
“Fairness did not require the applicant to be given the various procedural rights which he seeks in these proceedings before the inquiry served a PDR on the trust requiring provision of medical notes and records relating to him,” he stated.
“His rights are adequately protected by the safeguards relating to the inquiry’s holding and use of the records, and his opportunity to engage with or challenge the Inquiry, after the relevant records have been received.”
According to the judge, the hearings have been set up to respond to issues of significant public concern and, provided they do not go beyond their remit, any interference with privacy rights will be proportionate.
He confirmed: “I do not consider the limited disclosure sought to represent a substantive breach of the applicant’s Article 8 rights.”
However, Mr Justice Scoffield said he was “troubled” by the suggestion that notes and records could be acquired without any indication ever to the individual concerned.
“I would be prepared to hold there is an obligation … that a public inquiry which so obtains medical records must inform the patient that it has done so," he added.