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GPs don’t face ‘double jeopardy’ with new GMC power

In your article last week, ‘GPs face double jeopardy’ under new GMC power to appeal tribunal decisions, it was claimed by GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey that the new legislation would put doctors at risk of double jeopardy.

This is simply not true, misunderstands the meaning of the term double jeopardy and is, in legal terms, inaccurate. It is neither fair nor sensible to frighten doctors about a reform that underlines the autonomy of the tribunal service and the complete separation of the GMC’s role to bring forward serious allegations and the Tribunal Service’s role in adjudicating these cases. Our right of appeal demonstrates clearly that separation and is of course mirrored by the right of the doctor to appeal where he or she believes the decision of the Tribunal is unjust.

What your article failed to point out is that challenges of the leniency of decisions, currently made by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), are unusual – indeed in the last three years there have been just six cases. Challenges by doctors on the other hand are more common – there have been 88 challenges over the same period, but importantly the High Court has only upheld 10 appeals. Any fair-minded person would surely conclude that both sets of figures are a testament to the quality of decisions made by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS).

It is the case that the PSA will retain a right of appeal but this is likely to be rarely used – given they only use it sparingly now – and will be used only when they judge the GMC has failed to exercise its own power appropriately. The High Court would certainly take a dim view of the GMC or the PSA, were either of us to bring inappropriate cases before them. We will always carefully consider whether an appeal is justified because the decision of the panel does not provide sufficient protection for the public or the reputation of the profession.

There are currently more than 270,000 doctors on the UK medical register – in the last year for which figures are available (2014) the Tribunal service imposed sanctions following a full hearing on 179 doctors. These cases included sexual assaults and other criminal acts, doctors with very serious mental health problems (who are not removed from the register) as well as seriously deficient performance.

It is also worth noting that the latest legal reforms, which we campaigned for, go beyond the right of appeal and will affect the way tribunal hearings are handled. The effect will be to cut the length of hearings and the process which leads to them. We have introduced a raft of reforms to support doctors in our procedures, to reduce as far as we can the stress involved. We will continue to drive reform, doing what we can ourselves, while calling on the Government to give us the legislative time to transform further a process which remains cumbersome and too stressful for both doctors and complainants.