Immunity from Suit for Complainants to the GMC

Libel, Slander Claims and DoctorsThe High Court has confirmed that a doctor who makes a complaint to the GMC against another doctor cannot be sued for defamation, libel or slander. In the case of Katherine White v Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust and William Roche [2011] EWHC 825 (QB) Mr Justice Eady held that the GMC is a quasi-judicial body and complainants therefore enjoy absolute privilege and immunity from suit when raising concerns about a doctor’s clinical performance or character. [Read: the full Case Report] The case law will also be relevant to cases being heard by the Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service (MPTS).

In practice, a doctor who is complained about will generally not be able to take a civil action in defamation against someone who has complained against them to a regulatory body such as the General Medical Council. Public policy recognises the importance of the complaints process. Complainants must not be fearful about making a complaint against a doctor. While the case concerned a complaint made by a fellow doctor, the immunity will cover any complainant, including patients and members of the public. There is also a likelihood that the public policy arguments may have broader impact on other tortious civil claims.

A doctor who is complained about will still have a right of reply to the GMC, by which they can challenge the complaint in the usual way. Complaints that are ill-founded should at an early stage be sifted out by the Case Examiners, where a doctor makes a robust reply that is properly evidenced.

Practice Note: Where a libel claim is brought, the claim must be lodged with the court within 12 months of ‘publication’.

(Doctors Defence Service 12 April 2011)

Further Case Law:

Mayer v Hoar [2012] EWHC 1805 (QB) – Correspondence sent by registrant who is being investigated by regulator, sent to the regulator, is also covered by absolute privilege. Libel claims cannot therefore succeed. {Principles set out in Mahon v Rahn (No 2) [2000] [2000] EWCA Civ 185; 1 WLR 2150 followed.} (July 2012)

See also: Testimonials and Defamation

Doctors Defence Service lawyers can assist doctors in responding to complaints. Call us on 0800 10 88 739 for more details or use our Contact Form.

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Doctors Defence Service (DDS) assists medical doctors who are registered with the General Medical Council (GMC) in the United Kingdom (UK) and also those doctors from abroad who wish to register and practise as doctors in the UK. Doctors Defence Service also assists doctors in relation to all other legal issues arising from daily practice and operating businesses in the clinical arena. DDS represents doctors in FTP and IOP GMC proceedings, at inquests, in general civil cases, in commercial and contract law, in revalidation matters, and employment law. Doctors Defence Service can be contacted on 0800 10 88 739. We have main offices in London, Manchester, and Telford. We cover most other UK regions too.