The Medical Defence Union has warned that proposals around sentencing guidelines could lead to doctors being given more severe sentences if convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.
The Sentencing Council, which was set up by the Ministry of Justice to set sentencing guidelines, consulted last year on increasing the sentence for someone convicted of gross negligence manslaughter from a minimum of two years to a minimum of six years.
This would apply to doctors, who are not subject to an exemption, the MDU warns.
The MDU’s response follows the controversial High Court Ruling concerning junior doctor Dr Hazida Bawa-Garba last week, who had been given a two-year suspended sentence for gross negligence manslaughter in 2015.
Ian Barker, MDU’s senior solicitor, said the threat of a longer sentence ‘will be no greater deterrent in terms of reinforcing doctors’ duties to their patients’.
He added: ‘It may, however, increase any fear or doubt they have when making difficult decisions about patients when they are in a very difficult position yet are trying to act in a patient’s best interests.
‘It seems to us a retrograde step to contemplate increasing the burden on doctors at such times, and puts at risk the necessary open environment which enables learning from error and increased patient safety.’
The House of Commons justice committee also expressed a concern over longer sentence times for gross negligence manslaughter in relation to clinical decision cases.
In their response to the consultation, the committee said the factors indicating ‘high culpability’, which include an awareness ‘of the risk of death arising from the offender’s negligent conduct’, could lead to ‘inappropriately long custodial sentences, especially in relation to clinical decisions taken by medical practitioners in testing circumstances, and situations where junior employees have little control in their workplace environment’.
Mr Barker’s comments come after the GMC won a High Court bid to have Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba struck off the medical register, against the decision of its own tribunal.
Dr Bawa-Garba was a registrar at the Children’s Assessment Unit at Leicester Royal Infirmary on 18 February 2011, and the most senior doctor on the shift, when a six-year-old child with sepsis died.