The 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  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)
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