BMA accused of contempt of courtBMJ 2000; 320 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.320.7232.401/b (Published 12 February 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:401
Mr Justice Forbes, the judge who presided over the case of Dr Harold Shipman, the English GP who was recently found guilty of murdering 15 of his patients, has criticised the BMA for “flagrant” contempt, which could have halted the trial. He has referred the matter to the attorney general.
The BMA had prepared a background briefing paper for circulation before the verdict to a small number of people who would be asked to do interviews in the event of Dr Shipman being found guilty on all charges.
The association had intended to circulate the paper, after the verdict, to a wider range of BMA spokespeople and members of the General Practitioners Committee. It was released to the wider group in error.
The judge said that he was concerned that the information could have reached the jury. “I accept that there was no intention to prejudice the trial,” he said. But he believed that the documents were capable of prejudicing the fairness of the trial. “If the jury in this case had been discharged it would have been almost impossible to retry Dr Shipman either on the charges with which he is convicted or on any other offences.”
The BMA has apologised for the error, and will submit to the attorney general that there was not a contempt of court. In a press statement the association said, “We are absolutely horrified ourselves at the possibility that an error on our part could have prevented Harold Shipman from being brought to justice. The persons to whom the document was circulated are responsible members of the medical profession and Mr Justice Forbes has accepted that there was no intention on the part of the BMA to interfere with the process of justice. However, he has referred the matter to the Attorney General for a view on whether, nevertheless, the BMA is in contempt of court.”