New council takes GMC to High Court for undue leniency

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 04 March 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:541
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    The bodies that regulate the conduct of doctors and nurses in the United Kingdom were taken to the High Court last week under new powers to challenge decisions of healthcare regulatory bodies for the protection of the public.

    In its first two cases, the new Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals challenged a caution imposed on a nurse who viewed pornographic websites during his night shift on a children's ward, and a finding that a GP accused of having an affair with a patient was not guilty of serious professional misconduct.

    In the first case, Mr Justice Collins reserved judgment on whether the Nursing and Midwifery Council dealt too leniently with Steven Truscott, who was given a caution, leaving him free to carry on working. Mr Truscott, who was dismissed from his job with University College London Hospitals Trust, admitted misconduct but said the most obscene material, including “Lolita”-type scenes, had “popped up” inadvertently on his computer screen. His activities were discovered when another member of staff caught him in the act.

    In the second case, the Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals alleges that the General Medical Council was too lenient when it acquitted Dr Giuseppe Ruscillo, a GP, of serious professional misconduct. Dr Ruscillo, who practises in Lancaster, was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a patient.

    In a preliminary hearing last week, the GMC argued that the Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals has no power to take a case to the High Court if the doctor has been found not guilty. Its powers are limited to challenging only a penalty imposed on a doctor once found guilty of misconduct, contended the GMC.

    In addition, the GMC argued that a case should not go ahead if there were outstanding complaints against the doctor to the regulatory body. Mr Justice Levison reserved his judgment till later.

    A spokesman for the Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals said: “These are new powers, and it's right and proper that they should be tested and explored.”

    The powers, in force since April 2003, were granted by section 29 of the NHS Reform and Healthcare Professions Act 2002, which set up the Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals (BMJ 2003;327: 1070). They allow certain decisions of the regulatory bodies to be challenged in the High Court for England and Wales and the equivalent courts in Scotland and Northern Ireland if the council considers it desirable for the protection of the public.

    The policy, set out in the notes to the bill when it went through parliament, is that the powers would be limited to “extreme cases” where the public interest in having a “clearly perverse” decision overturned outweighed the public interest in independent self regulation.

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