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Former GP is suspended for five months over protests to end fossil fuel extraction

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.q940 (Published 24 April 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q940
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. The BMJ

A former GP and climate activist who spent 32 days in prison for breaching an injunction banning protests outside an oil terminal against the production and use of fossil fuels has been suspended from the UK medical register for five months.

Sarah Benn told a medical practitioners tribunal that she refused to remediate her conduct but intended to continue protesting until the government took urgent action to protect its citizens and future generations from the effects of climate breakdown. She said that she was “blowing my whistle as loud as I can.”

The tribunal emphasised that professional rules did not prevent doctors from engaging in peaceful protests but required them to comply with the law. Benn spent eight days on remand in custody for breaching the April 2022 injunction twice, in April and May that year, and was jailed for 32 days for contempt of court after breaching it again in the September.

The judge who jailed her for breaching the injunction a third time said that the Just Stop Oil protest had prevented people in the vicinity of the Kingsbury Oil Terminal in Warwickshire from going about their business and had caused a strain on police resources.

Rachel Birks, chairing the tribunal, said it accepted that “amongst the public there would be considerable sympathy for Dr Benn’s concerns about the environment.” She added, “The tribunal reiterates that it respects Dr Benn’s views, her right to hold them, and her right to express them.

“However, the tribunal was of the view that the overwhelming majority of the public would not condone breaking the law in the repeated way in which Dr Benn did, especially given the impact, on the final occasion, to the wider public resources involved.”

In her witness statement to the tribunal Benn wrote, “A doctor’s prime responsibility is to protect life and health, and also to speak out when these are endangered. My actions have been taken with a view to amplifying my words to a wider audience, whilst enacting these very responsibilities. I would therefore predict that my actions would not erode trust in myself or the profession, and have come across no evidence to suggest that they would.”

But the tribunal found that “the behaviour that Dr Benn had exhibited in not complying with the law on several occasions, disrupting public services and acting in a way that has led to a custodial sentence, would bring the profession into disrepute.”

Multiple breaches

The tribunal acknowledged that there were no clinical concerns about Benn’s practice. She spent 32 years in general practice and was a former GP trainer and undergraduate tutor before giving up clinical work in April 2022 and relinquishing her licence to practise in August 2022. She told the tribunal that she had devoted most of her time since 2022 to environmental activism and voluntary work.

The tribunal ordered a review hearing in five months, at which Benn could be struck off the register. The General Medical Council (GMC) is considering another case against her over a magistrates’ court conviction, and she faces an upcoming jury trial with three charges against her.

In a statement issued after the tribunal’s decision to suspend Benn a GMC spokesperson said, “Dr Sarah Benn was referred to a hearing at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service not for protesting about climate change, but for multiple breaches of a court order which resulted in a custodial sentence. Like all citizens, doctors have the right to express their personal opinions on issues, including climate change. There is nothing in our guidance to prevent them from doing so, nor from exercising their right to lobby government and to campaign, including taking part in protests.

“However, patients and the public rightly have a high degree of trust in doctors, and that trust can be eroded if doctors repeatedly fail to comply with the law. Our fitness to practise investigations consider cases which are referred to us and where doctors have broken the law, not their motivations for doing so. It is not the role of regulators to determine UK law—that is a matter for parliament.”

Peaceful actions

Latifa Patel, the BMA’s representative body chair and workforce lead, said that Benn’s case raised serious questions about doctors’ regulation. She said, “Dr Benn’s actions and her resulting custodial sentence posed no threat to patients, but her suspension implies they do. It is now time for the GMC and the medical profession to review the basis on which Dr Benn found herself in front of a medical tribunal.

“We need urgent consideration on the rules as to why a doctor has been suspended for the punishment they already received for taking part in a legitimately peaceful protest, especially as the climate crisis is also a health crisis and as such doctors are understandably concerned.”

Patel added, “Like any citizen, doctors should adhere to the law, but many will find it very difficult to understand that their ability to practise medicine could be suspended because of peaceful actions they take in protest of the climate crisis. Whilst the GMC has a duty to refer doctors to a medical tribunal when they receive a custodial sentence, in some cases, such as this one, the doctor’s actions will have no bearing on their ability to practise medicine and will not pose a risk to patients, past or future.”

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change called on the GMC to recognise the uniqueness of cases such as Benn’s and to change the Medical Act if necessary “to avoid removing the livelihood of doctors who are concerned and courageous enough to break what they see as immoral laws.”

The alliance said in a statement, “It is in these exceptional circumstances that doctors committed to public health have resorted to actions judged criminal. As with other activists like the suffragettes, history will support the minority who took direct action to raise awareness of the consequences of our unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels and be critical of the majority who either passively accepted the status quo or condemned the activists.”