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Avoiding the legal dangers of partnership splits

There is a lot at stake for warring GP partners, including the loss of their NHS contract, warns Lynne Abbess.

In these days of increasingly large GP partnerships - often resulting from practice mergers - a partnership split is not only an unfashionable notion. It is also a very uncomfortable position for GPs to find themselves in. 

Partners should seize every opportunity to avoid this occurring. 

Gone are the days when each partner had the security of their own list of patients and individual recognition from their primary care organisation (PCO). 

Being party to a practice contract with your PCO is essential to secure the right to practise under the NHS at all - and PCOs are increasingly unlikely to support a practice ‘de-merger’.

 Smaller practices

It is widely recognised that smaller practices are under scrutiny as PCOs and the government believe they may raise greater concerns about efficiency and performance than bigger practices. 

This means it is highly unlikely a PCO will entertain an application from a partner (or a group of partners) in a practice to split their NHS contract into two.

This naturally imposes greater pressure on GP partners to endeavour to find a different way in which to solve serious difficulties. Indeed, it is important that partners are aware of the challenges they are likely to face in seeking to split their partnership, so they can prevent minor niggles from unnecessarily developing into significantly more major problems that may prove hard to resolve amicably.

 Partnership deed

The starting point for avoiding serious strife is a well-structured partnership deed. 

Often the process of working through the format of the deed is therapeutic as it draws out issues of concern that can be addressed at an early stage. And it may even identify the areas that could in future become flashpoints between partners unless they are dealt with before relationships deteriorate.

Once the deed is signed by all the partners, it should provide a measure of security. However, it is then essential for the partners to strive to maintain harmony between themselves. While the deed should set out the ground rules for fair play, it cannot guarantee that a sticking plaster will be applied if the rules are broken.

 External facilitator

If problems are starting to arise, early intervention using an external facilitator to work with the partners before a full-scale dispute arises, can be invaluable in drawing the parties together again. 

Alternatively, the parties may benefit by employing separate solicitors to provide them with an opportunity to air their grievances in a structured way and with a view to finding a working solution and moving forward. If this does not achieve a satisfactory outcome the next stage may be to appoint an independent mediator. 

If matters are allowed to escalate beyond this stage - potentially to a full-blown dispute that ends up in court - there are rarely any winners.

The cost of proceedings

It is fair to point out that the cost of the proceedings alone is likely to leave each side feeling bruised (and the losing party may well have to bear the costs of their opponent in addition to their own costs).

Also the courts take a fairly intolerant approach to partners falling out (particularly in the case of professional partnerships) and often encourage the partners to go away and seek to resolve their differences without wasting the court’s time. Only in extreme circumstances would a case appear before a high court judge. 

The key message for avoiding trouble is to have a well-structured partnership deed and then for you and your partners to ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ with each other.

  • Have a well-structured partnership deed to set out the ground rules.
  • Be more tolerant about personality differences and make staying on good terms with your partners a priority.
  • Nip emerging problems in the bud early on by working together to find a solution.
  • Bring in outside expertise to facilitate problem solving if you cannot agree.
  • Take legal advice if this does not work but beware the high costs of court action.

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