Manslaughter by Healthcare Professionals

Doctors are up in arms about the conviction for manslaughter of Dr Bawa-Garba, who treated a seriously ill 6-year-old boy in hospital in 2011. Dr Bawa-Garba was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence. The Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service imposed a 12-month suspension and the General Medical Council appealed against this. At the end of January, the High Court upheld the appeal, saying that in order to convict, the jury in the manslaughter trial must have found negligence that was truly exceptionally bad. Mr Justice Ouseley held that a suspension from practice did not respect the jury’s verdict, and replaced suspension with erasure from the register. He insisted that this did not mean that every time a healthcare professional was convicted of manslaughter they must be struck off, but it is hard to envisage any circumstances in which striking off would be avoided.

Following the outcry in the medical profession, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced in the House of Commons - less than two weeks after the High Court decision - that he has asked Professor Sir Norman Williams to "conduct a rapid review into the application of gross negligence manslaughter in healthcare". It seems a marked contrast to the time it has taken the Department of Health to decriminalise dispensing errors after the conviction of Elizabeth Lee.

On the same day as Mr Hunt's announcement of a review, the General Pharmaceutical Council issued a statement saying that it will "actively engage with the rapid review". The focus of the GPhC's statement appears to be on pharmacy owners promoting a culture of openness, honesty and learning when things go wrong. This is to be seen within the proposals for revalidation.

The GPhC says it only takes forward the most serious cases, and a single dispensing error would only be taken forward if there are significant other aggravating factors. This does not seem to take matters any further, because the GPhC would inevitably regard a single fatal dispensing error resulting in a manslaughter conviction as one in which fitness to practise proceedings would be taken.

Decriminalisation of dispensing errors draws nearer

Following Parliamentary approval in December, the Order giving effect to statutory defences to prosecutions for dispensing errors under section 64 of the Medicines Act was approved by the Privy Council on 8 February. After 8 March, the Government can make a commencement order and specify a date when the new statutory defences will come into force. The earliest date will be April 2018.

New GPhC Threshold Criteria for Fitness to Practise Cases

Following a consultation, the GPhC has now published new threshold criteria which apply to all decisions whether to refer a case to its Investigating Committee. The new criteria are available on the GPhC's website.

The GPhC says "the new criteria will help make sure that a proportionate, fair and consistent approach is taken when making decisions once our investigation concludes”.