When will an appeal court overturn a professional regulator’s decision on sanction?

22nd March 2022

An appeal was brought by the General Medical Council (GMC) against the sanction imposed by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal (MPT) on the respondent, Dr Ahmed.

The hearing before the MPT

The MPT considered allegations of misconduct by Dr Ahmed in relation to two patients, Patient A and Patient B. The MPT found that some, but not all, of the allegations against Dr Ahmed were proved, including that his behaviour was sexually motivated against one. The MPT determined his behaviour amounted misconduct in relation to each patient, and his fitness to practise was impaired. The MPT decided that the appropriate sanction was a suspension of Dr Ahmed’s registration for a period of two months. In reaching its decision on sanction, the MPT took into account, amongst other things, that Dr Ahmed had been subject to an interim order of suspension for four months. It did not direct that the matter should be reviewed at the conclusion of the suspension, concluding that a review would serve no useful purpose.

The Appeal

The GMC appealed on the grounds that the MPT’s decision to impose a sanction of two months’ suspension was insufficient to protect the public since it:

  • (i) failed to address adequately the Sanctions Guidance on erasure; and
  • (ii) imposed a sanction that was insufficient to reflect the seriousness of Dr Ahmed’s misconduct.

In determining the appeal, the court highlighted the importance of giving appropriate deference to the decision of the MPT panel, which had the benefit of hearing all of the evidence, and which comprised of a medical practitioner and two lay members, one of whom was legally qualified, and all of whom were assisted by a legal assessor. It further noted that the principal purpose of sanctions was the maintenance of public confidence in the profession rather than the administration of retributive justice.

The court said that whilst the MPT had quite rightly concluded that Dr Ahmed had committed serious professional misconduct in relation to one patient, which was sexually motivated, this fell toward the less serious end of the spectrum of seriousness. Erasure is not an automatic consequence in a case involving sexual misconduct. The MPT had properly assessed the sanction and reached a decision that fell within the bounds of what it could properly and reasonably decide. The court also found that the MPT had proper regard to the Sanctions Guidance and gave sufficient reasons for departing from it.

The MPT was entitled to take into account that Dr Ahmed had already served an interim suspension of four months, and bearing in mind that this was not a case involving any threat to patient health or safety, to conclude that a suspension of two months in this case was sufficient to maintain public confidence in the medical profession and to maintain proper professional standards and conduct for members of the medical profession. The court concluded that it was open to the MPT to conclude that a review would serve no useful purpose.

The court therefore dismissed the appeal.

Comment on General Medical Council v Ahmed

This case is a reminder that an appeal court will be reluctant to overturn a decision reached by a professional regulatory body, where it is apparent that the panel had due regard to the evidence before it and undertook a careful assessment, with appropriate reference to the evidence before it, before reaching its conclusion on sanction. Whilst a finding that a doctor’s misconduct was sexually motivated will always be treated as serious, the context of that behaviour will be relevant, and it will not necessarily be incompatible with a doctor remaining on the register.

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