Earlier this month the Privy Council approved legislation introducing new defences to criminal offences concerning dispensing errors made by registered pharmacy professionals.

The Pharmacy (Preparation and Dispensing Errors – Registered Pharmacies) Order 2018 aims to protect registered pharmacists, technicians and those working under their supervision in registered pharmacies from fear of criminal prosecution for inadvertent preparation or dispensing errors.

Current law on dispensing errors

At present, the law considers all dispensing errors to be criminal acts regardless of whether the incident is intentional or inadvertent and without any consideration as to the severity of harm caused under the Medicines Act 1968. Any person guilty of an offence faces a fine or imprisonment for up to two years. The changes mean that certain pharmacy professionals making an inadvertent dispensing error and satisfying the conditions for the new defence will no longer face the risk of criminal prosecution. However, their conduct will continue to be subject to the scrutiny of their professional regulator.

Government consultation

The change follows a UK-wide consultation by the four UK health departments last year with pharmacy professionals, representative bodies, patients and the public. It concluded that fear of criminal prosecution was counterproductive to the overall aim to increase patient safety. The consultation considered that law reform was needed to encourage error reporting. This would in turn create a culture of openness amongst pharmacy professionals and new opportunities to learn from mistakes without the fear of criminal sanctions.

Change in the law

The new legislation was approved by the Privy Council on 8 February 2018 meaning it can come into force anytime from 8 March 2018.

Criminal prosecutions can continue to apply under other legislation, for example gross negligence manslaughter. The legislation does not apply to pharmacy professionals working in hospitals or other pharmacy settings.

Nevertheless, this is a significant step forward and an important move towards encouraging lessons to be learned from these incidents and in turn prevention, rather than the fostering of a culture of blame.