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GP cleared in abuse case from 1970s

A GP sued by a former patient for not reporting her sexually abusive stepfather to the police 27 years ago has been exonerated by the High Court.

In a key judgment for GPs, the court ruled Dr Andrew Cairns had not acted negligently by failing to report the abuse after the patient's mother told him about it.

Legal experts said the ruling would reassure GPs facing allegations dating back many years that they would be judged according to standards at that time, not on current practices.

The claimant, named in court only as 'C', sought compensation from Dr Cairns, claiming his inaction, after learning of her ordeal in 1975, had caused her to endure four more years of abuse which left her mentally scarred for life.

Deputy High Court Judge Stuart Brown QC said Dr Cairns's actions could be deemed naive by today's standards, but he had not breach-ed his duty of care and had acted in a way consistent with what other doctors might reasonably have done at the time.

'I am satisfied his decision accorded with that likely to have been reached by many responsible, caring colleagues,' Judge Brown ruled.

'It follows that I can neither criticise him, still less castigate him.'

The judge said 'C's' case against the GP was 'truly stale' and it would be unjust for it to proceed any further.

Dr Cairns, a GP in Worthing, West Sussex, had only recently qualified when the claimant's mother told him about the abuse and insisted he treat her disclosures in the strictest confidence.

In his judgment, Judge Brown said emphasis on doctor-patient confidentiality in 1975 was much greater than now and 'would only be breached in the rarest of circumstances'.

Dr Frances Szekely, who handled Dr Cairns's case on behalf of the Medical Defence Union, said GPs could be reassured they should be judged by the standards that existed at the time of the incident.

'It's the proper legal test and the case was won because of it,' she said.

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