Inquests can be tough on doctors. In our modern technological world, where there is an unreaslistic expectation that doctors can overcome most ills, there is belief that doctors will prolong and preserve all human life, if they act correctly. Regrettably, some grieving families and bereaved spouses find it difficult to accept that their loved one has died a natural death and instead seek to blame doctors and other clinical staff for not doing enough. Many families look to blame doctors for the ‘premature’ or unexpected death of their loved one.
Where a death is not easily explained (at least in layman’s terms) criticism of the treating or responsible doctors is likely to follow. “Surely they would have lived longer if the doctor had acted promptly,” is an accusation often made against doctors, by grieving family members. Sometimes such allegations are made in more pejorative terms by local newspapers who get tipped off by families about the “cover ups” they fear are occurring. Coroners have a duty to investigate deaths that appear unnatural, or where the deceased met a violent death, or where the cause of death is otherwise unknown. A Coroner must hold an inquest in such circumstances.
Many doctors are called to give evidence at inquests and many find it a gruelling experience. Doctors are entitled to representation at inquests, if they are deemed to be an interested party. Many doctors, when giving evidence, find themselves responding to allegations that they have neglected a patient, or caused or contributed to a patient’s death through an inappropriate act or omission. A doctor is obliged to answer all reasonable questions, except where they might self-incriminate – an individual is not required under English and Welsh law to make admissions that could constitute an admission to a criminal offence.
Being well-prepared for an inquest is to a doctor’s advantage. A doctor should make sure that they have read the patient notes thoroughly before attending an inquest to give evidence. Many families will instruct experienced barristers to represent them at inquests and doctors attending as witnesses should consider having the support of a barrister themselves, to ensure “equality of arms” during the inquisitorial proceedings. It may be the case that due to grief a family automatically blames a doctor for the death of a relative, where there is little or no basis to make such a claim. However, most families have legitimate concerns about acts and omissions that have contributed to the early demise of their relative.
There will be occasions where the criticism made by a coroner is unjust or unfounded such that it is unlawful and open to challenge. There will be a good reason to challenge a coroner’s judicial comments on occasions, because a doctor who is criticised by a coroner has a duty under the GMC Code of Conduct to self-report to the GMC. The Code of Conduct, Good Medical Practice, (Paragraph 75) states:
75: You must tell us without delay if, anywhere in the world:
1. … you have … been criticised by an official inquiry.
Doctors Defence Service lawyers represent doctors at inquests and can advise doctors on the steps that need to be taken in preparation for an inquest. Medical notes and investigations reports, as well as statements, may need to be obtained and compiled into hearing bundles, with an index. Doctors Defence Service lawyers can undertake preparatory work in order to assist a doctor to put their historic contact with the patient or client in proper context.
If you would like to speak to a Doctors Defence Service lawyer in confidence and without obligation about an inquest or matter related to a patient’s death, call us on 0800 10 88 739
Doctor’s Mandatory Duty to Inform Coroner of Deaths