The future of children's heart surgery in Southampton was today dramatically thrown back into doubt.

A High Court judge ruled today that the Department for Health review of heart services across the country was flawed.

Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, sitting in London, said the consultation process  was''unfair and procedurally flawed'' .

It has been launched by campaign group Save Our Surgery (S0S), which is trying to stop the proposed closure of the heart unit at Leeds General Infirmary.

It now means the NHS has to either appeal against the decision or launch a new review.

SOS represents a large number of residents in the Leeds area who want fresh consultations.

Nearly 600,000 people signed a petition against closure.

The legal challenge stems from a decision last July by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) that paediatric cardiac surgery should be concentrated at fewer, larger sites to improve standards across the country.

At a recent hearing, JCPCT lawyers argued the consultation process was fair and not open to legal challenge.

More than 250,000 people backed the Daily Echo Have A Heart Campaign which saved the Southampton centre along with units at Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, and two London centres.

Facing closure are the Leeds site and units at Leicester's Glenfield Hospital and London's Royal Brompton. The Brompton has already lost an earlier legal challenge to the proposals.

MP warns children's heart rethink could risk lives - click here

Philip Havers QC, appearing for SOS, argued the consultation process was fatally flawed by a refusal of the JCPCT to release information that could have helped the Leeds General Infirmary better make its case for survival.

The QC said the Kennedy Panel, a group of experts set up to advise the JCPCT, produced ''sub-scores'' measuring the quality of service at each centre according to various criteria.

But the JCPCT chose only to look at the panel's total scores, and ''bizarrely'' refused to disclose the sub-scores to consultees until the consultation process was over.

Mr Havers argued the sub-scores were crucial.

He said if the Leeds hospital chiefs had known how they had been marked they could have made submissions to improve their total score and might have avoided ending among the bottom three centres earmarked for closure.

SOS spokeswoman Sharon Cheng said outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London today's ruling did not necessarily mean the Leeds heart unit was saved, and much would depend on what orders the judge decided to make when the matter returns to court later this month.

One possibility is that the judge will order fresh consultations, which could throw plans for the reorganisation of children's heart surgery around the country into delay and disarray.

Ms Cheng said: ''We have won this case on every point.
''It doesn't necessarily mean the heart surgery is saved, but fresh reconsideration will have to be given as to what is to happen next and the fight will go on.

''We knew it was time to fight because of the strength of feeling of families.

''The campaign started small, like David and Goliath, then grew and grew out of all proportions."

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