Are Human Rights Universal?

Passed in 1998 and enacted two years later, the British Human Rights Act (HRA) placed the terms of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. Whilst the HRA has been the source of criticism in some circles, there can be little doubt that it is a hugely important piece of legislation.

Crucially, the HRA requires all British courts and tribunals to act in accordance with the rights defined in the ECHR. One of these rights is the presumption of innocence; article 6(2) states:

‘Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.’

The publication of the GMC report ‘Doctors who commit suicide while under GMC fitness to practise investigation‘, written by an independent consultant, the chief executive of the National Patient Safety Agency (NPSA), therefore makes interesting reading. The report found that 114 doctors died between 2005 and 2013 while they were being investigated by the GMC. Of these, 24 were suicides, and an additional four were probable suicides. Amongst its recommendations, the report advised that ‘Doctors under investigation should feel that they are treated as “innocent until proven guilty”.

It is worth pointing out that not all of the doctors being investigated by the GMC were suspected of carrying out criminal offences. Nevertheless, the fact that an independent report’s very first recommendation should be that the GMC complies with a principle that was enshrined in British law long before the ECHR was even written – ‘the golden thread of British justice’, as Horace Rumpole frequently said in John Mortimer’s books – is an appalling indictment of an institution that has treated doctors so badly that many have taken their own lives. We can never know how many of those 28 individuals found that the stress of their GMC investigations proved to be the final straw. However, a previous study quoted in the report found that seven of 38 doctors who took their own lives between 1991 and 1993 were facing complaints.

Doctors in the UK face what the report describes as ‘multiple jeopardy’ – they can be investigated by several different bodies for the same alleged offence. As the number of bodies that can carry out such investigations appears to grow relentlessly, it is likely that the stress of this will also grow, placing huge burdens on individuals who may already be suffering from problems with their mental health.

Nine of those who committed suicide – 32% of the total – had been under GMC investigation for over two years. This is itself contrary to another principle enshrined within the ECHR, stated in article 6(1): ‘Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time.’

It is utterly deplorable that it has taken an independent report for the GMC to face the truth: its own procedures are not compliant with fundamental human rights, or with the natural principles of British justice. In its quest to be seen as placing the protection of patients above all else, the GMC has trampled on the fundamental rights of doctors, contributing hugely – and perhaps in some of these cases fatally – to the stresses that they face. Today’s announcement that the GMC will offer ’emotional resilience training’ and further reforms to treat doctors as innocent until proved guilty, while welcome, is of no comfort whatever to the families of those who took their own lives while facing the inhumane processes of their regulatory body, or those who survived but will forever bear the scars. Those who were responsible for that regime should hang their heads in shame, and if any are still in post, should consider whether it is appropriate for them to continue. After this report, they cannot believe that the profession has any confidence in them.

Prit Buttar, GP