When the Human Rights Act came into force on 2 October, trusts braced themselves for test cases on a variety of fronts.
The act incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and, as predicted, the right to life was invoked in cases of patients in permanent vegetative state. The High Court confirmed that current practice complies with the convention, but who would have guessed that among the first right-to-life issues the courts would have to tackle was whether surgeons could lawfully kill one Siamese twin to save the other?
Now another article of the European convention - article 6, the right to a fair hearing - is likely to have repercussions for the NHS which were largely unforeseen.
Employees in Scotland will be eligible for legal aid from January to take their employers to employment tribunals. The Scottish Executive caved in after lawyers filed test cases claiming the lack of legal aid meant there was no 'equality of arms' between employees, many of whom had to represent themselves, and employers, usually represented by skilled lawyers. Aid will not be available for every case, only the more complex, but lawyers estimate this could be 50-60 per cent.
The move is bound to mean more tribunal cases and could prompt a similar concession in England and Wales, where tribunal cases have already seen a steep rise in the last decade.
The Lord Chancellor says he has no plans to extend legal aid to tribunals south of the border, but the civil rights group Liberty is looking for a test case. And when Scottish lawyers successfully challenged the use of temporary part-time judges in the Scottish courts, the Lord Chancellor was forced to give part-timers in England permanent appointments.
The constitution unit at University College London warns that challenges are also likely over the denial of life-saving treatment on grounds of age, lifestyle - such as smoking - or pre-existing disability, such as Down's syndrome. The unit is preparing guidance on the implications of the Human Rights Act for the health service.