The content of this website is intended for healthcare professionals only

Don’t increase sentences for medical manslaughter, urges MDU

Sentencing Council is considering increased sentences for people convicted of manslaughter

Ingrid Torjesen

Monday, 29 January 2018

Doctors convicted of gross negligence manslaughter could face more severe sentences, under plans being considered by the Sentencing Council, the body which sets sentencing guidelines, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) has warned.

A consultation by the Sentencing Council is examining whether to increase sentences for those convicted of manslaughter. The MDU is highlighting its concerns about the consultation as it says doctors are particularly vulnerable to facing a manslaughter investigation.

The recent case of Dr Bawa-Garba who was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and last week struck off the medical register illustrates this.

Writing in the latest edition of the MDU Journal, Dr Michael Devlin, head of professional standards and liaison at the MDU, said: “The death of a patient, particularly when unexpected, is a distressing experience for the deceased’s relatives and the doctor caring for the patient. Doctors accused of causing a patient’s death through gross negligence can be investigated for manslaughter and this casts a long shadow over their professional lives.

“Doctors are given no special exemption in terms of sentencing and may be imprisoned if convicted, usually for a minimum of two years. Worryingly, the proposed new guidelines could lead to longer sentences for doctors.”

In its response to the consultation, Ian Barker MDU senior solicitor expressed serious concerns about the impact of more severe sentences for manslaughter. He explained: “Increasing the severity of a sentence for gross negligence manslaughter will be no greater deterrent in terms of reinforcing doctors' duties to their patients. It may, however, increase any fear or doubt they have when making difficult decisions about patients when they are in a very difficult position yet are trying to act in a patient's best interests.

“It seems to us a retrograde step to contemplate increasing the burden on doctors at such times, and puts at risk the necessary open environment which enables learning from error and increased patient safety.”

The MDU’s concerns are echoed by MPs on the Justice Committee.

In its recent report on the draft Sentencing Council guidelines* the House of Commons Justice Committee said: “There is a risk of the high culpability factors proposed for gross negligence manslaughter leading to inappropriately long custodial sentences, especially in relation to clinical decisions taken by medical practitioners in testing circumstances, and situations where junior employees have little control in their workplace environment. We recommend that the Council reconsider the high culpability factors for gross negligence manslaughter, taking account of these concerns.”

*Draft Sentencing Council guidelines on manslaughter. A report prepared by the House of Commons Justice Committee, December 2017.

Registered in England and Wales. Reg No. 2530185. c/o Wilmington plc, 5th Floor, 10 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 8QS. Reg No. 30158470