MDU calls for clearer guidance for Coroners to prevent doctors being put through manslaughter investigation

The Medical Defence Union (MDU), the largest medical defence organisation (MDO) in the United Kingdom has recently called for there to be clearer guidance for Coroners, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to prevent doctors being needlessly put through a gross negligence manslaughter investigation.

The recent press release (read here: followed oral evidence given by the MDU to the rapid review by Sir Norman Williams into gross negligence manslaughter in healthcare. In their written submission to the review the MDU explained how there is only one or fewer prosecutions for every ten investigations – which they argue represents a significant level of over-investigation of doctors.

Since 2014 the MDU has supported 34 medical members with manslaughter investigations. According to Ian Barker, MDU senior solicitor ‘There should be far fewer investigations and prosecutions for gross negligence manslaughter. It should be about identifying and prosecuting only those cases that are the medical equivalent of deliberately driving down the motorway on the wrong side… Coroners are currently responsible for passing most cases to the police for investigation and they should get greater support and clearer guidance about the law…”.

Mr. Barker went on to advocate straightforward changes that could be made quickly without practical difficulty, saying that given the clear distress that investigations cause for doctors involved and the fear and concern this generates more widely among healthcare practitioners, the MDU urged swift and decisive action.

Inquest Legal’s Peter Wade:

“Having previously been a member of the MDU’s legal panel, and worked closely with a wide range of healthcare professionals – including representing doctors at Inquest, the MDU’s concern does resonate with me. I have genuine insight into the anxieties faced by doctors subject to legal action arising from their clinical roles. The nationwide backlash from NHS staff following the conviction for manslaughter, of trainee paediatrician, Dr. Bawa-Garba, illustrates the depth of feeling evoked by this emotive issue.

I have however also represented families in complex clinical negligence claims, including many fatal cases. It’s clear to me, that while patients have always expected very high standards of doctors, they also have high levels of trust. Doctors are in a uniquely privileged position.

We have seen this trust, which patients have in doctors, and the NHS in general, eroded in recent years with high profile problems such as those at Mid Staffs which revealed “appalling” care and an estimate of hundreds of patients having died as a result of poor care between 2005 and 2009.

It is imperative in my view that there is a sufficiently serious, robust mechanism for scrutiny of those organisations and individuals responsible for the life and death of patients in the UK. As ever, it is about achieving the right balance.

Unfortunately, not all cases where patients have died as a result of poor, even grossly negligent medical care are in my view likely to be as obvious as the MDU see it – the medical equivalent of deliberately driving down the motorway on the wrong side.

As such, while any change which prevented doctors being ‘needlessly’ investigated for manslaughter would be a welcome one – any new guidance must still ensure that patient safety and issues of clinical risk remains the paramount consideration.

Inquest Legal can advise and represent both families and healthcare professionals involved in coroner’s inquests. Get in touch by telephone or email if you would like to discuss how we can help.

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