Clearer guidance for Coroners should mean fewer manslaughter investigations, MDU says

There should 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 Medical Defence Union (MDU) said today.

Following up its oral evidence to the rapid review by Sir Norman Williams into gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) in healthcare with a written submission, the MDU explained there is only one or fewer prosecutions for every ten investigations: a significant level of over-investigation of doctors.

Since 2014 the MDU has supported 34 medical members with manslaughter investigations. Ian Barker, MDU senior solicitor, said:

"There should be far fewer investigations and prosecutions of healthcare practitioners for GNM. 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. There should be a far more robust referral process, to help to achieve greater consistency and clarity and ensure only appropriate cases are investigated.

"In Scotland we are not aware of a case where a doctor has been successfully prosecuted for the similar offence of culpable homicide. We believe the same approach should apply in England and that investigation and prosecution of healthcare practitioners should be reserved for only the worst cases.

"We are advocating straightforward changes that can be made quickly without practical difficulty. Given the clear distress that investigations cause for doctors involved and the fear and concern this generates more widely among healthcare practitioners, the MDU urges swift and decisive action."

The MDU also recommends that NHS Improvement undertakes a review of guidance on dealing with and learning from sudden unexpected deaths. Guidance should state that healthcare staff must be supported and treated fairly and that NHS bodies should not make any assumptions about blame. Another MDU recommendation is the formation of a national police unit to investigate GNM.

This guidance was correct at publication 27/03/2018. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.