New watchdog given power to overturn GMC acquittals

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 01 April 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:783
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Doctors who are cleared of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council risk having their acquittals overturned by a court following a ruling this week from a High Court judge.

    The Council for the Regulation of Healthcare Professionals (CRHP), the new watchdog set up to oversee disciplinary bodies in the healthcare field, won a High Court test case this week against the General Medical Council over the extent of its powers.

    The GMC had argued that the CRHP's power to refer cases to the High Court when it believes regulators have acted too leniently applies only to penalties imposed for serious professional misconduct and not to cases where a doctor is cleared.

    But this week Mr Justice Leveson gave the CRHP the go-ahead to refer to the High Court the case of Giuseppe Ruscillo, a Lancaster GP acquitted of serious professional misconduct arising out of a relationship with a woman patient.

    The judge ruled that the CRHP had the power to refer such cases to court and did not have to wait until the GMC had dealt with a further, unrelated complaint against the doctor.

    He gave the GMC and Dr Ruscillo permission to appeal, adding: “Clearly the issues raised are of great importance. Clearly they involve not merely the medical profession but also other professions. It is obviously sensible that these issues are definitively resolved.”

    Unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, the High Court will go on to decide later this year whether Dr Ruscillo's acquittal was unduly lenient.

    The judge said the CRHP had been set up in response to public concern that existing arrangements for self regulation “have not proved sufficiently adaptable” and that on occasion “professional self interest has been placed before the interests of patients.”

    The judge said it was important to underline the rationale of professional discipline and regulation: “In this field, it is intended to promote the interests of patients and other members of the public and to ensure that the public can have confidence that those who are entitled to practise their profession meet the high standards that are required.”

    Dr Ruscillo was accused of having an emotional and sexual relationship with a patient he had treated for psychiatric problems, but the GMC's professional conduct committee found him not guilty of misconduct after submissions that the evidence was insufficient.

    A month later the chief executive of his primary care trust wrote to the GMC with information that could result in further proceedings against him.

    But there was no logical justification for denying the watch-dog body the right to refer a case to court because of some extraneous investigation unrelated to the original issues, and it was not constrained to await the outcome of the new investigation, the judge ruled.

    A spokesman for the GMC said: “We welcome the court's clarification on these matters, and were happy to be part of the process.”

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