Police Interviews with Doctors who are Not Suspects
Guidance for doctors who are not suspects who are to be interviewed by the police
The UK’s police will on occasions ask doctors to provide witness statements, especially where the police are undertaking an investigation into failures in hospital or community care. Police might also ask a doctor for a statement in matters relating to something unrelated to healthcare, where the doctor has been an eye witness to an incident or cared for someone involved with an incident that is being investigated.
If a doctor has merely been a clinician with some involvement in events surrounding the aftermath or events relating to a criminal offence committed by a member of the public (say), there are fewer risks in a doctor participating in the interview exercise.
Where, however, there has been a failure of clinical care and a doctor is asked to provide evidence as a witness, to describe what took place at their place of work, there is a risk that they might become a suspect if they have had any involvement in the case of a patient or other person who has died or sustained injury.
In most cases, this is unlikely to occur. But where there is criticism of the actions and omissions of a doctor or the clinical team, greater caution must be adopted. Where families have complained in detail to the authorities (such as the police, GMC, coroner, LADO, or other regulators) there will often be greater scrutiny of a doctor’s conduct. Both acts and omissions can be scrutinised, and any sub-optimal care might lead to criminal charges.
Good Medical Practice (the code of conduct for doctors) requires registered medical practitioners to fully engage with formal inquiries. Therefore, any significant lack of cooperation or intentionally dilatory conduct or avoidance tactics, can lead to a referral to the GMC. We would therefore recommend that doctors take legal advice about their status in a case, and on any statement that they might submit to the police or other organisation, such as a coroner. The box below sets out the core duties of a doctor when speaking to the police.
On occasions, the police will request an interview with a doctor to obtain more details of matters that are of interest to them. This could lead to disclosures being made by a doctor that could be used against them in due course. A doctor who is a witness could later become a suspect, and this might accidentally happen in some instances because a doctor has not given proper consideration to the history of events, the clinical notes, and the evidence that is or is not yet available.
The police should issue a formal police caution to a doctor where the status of witness is blurred or cleared that of a suspect but this takes vigilance on the part of a police officer to ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place. While, in many instances, it is safe for a doctor to attend an interview without a lawyer, there are also many occasions where it is safer to be accompanied by a lawyer, who is instructed to safeguard their position. On occasions, a question might be asked that needs more elaboration, and a lawyer can prompt the witness to deal with subject matter in more detail, perhaps with the use of clinical notes or other documents that may be used as an aide-memoir.
An interview with a suspect must be undertaken pursuant to legislation, called PACE, coming from the abbreviation for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (as amended). We have written various articles on PACE interviews and doctors. See also the CPS’s guidance on offences relating to vulnerable people: CPS Guidance to Offences Against Older People. The same principles would potentially be relevant to other vulnerable individuals. There are also the offences of assault, and gross negligence manslaughter. See also the UK government’s: guidance on giving statements in criminal cases, as a non suspect.
A doctor might choose to write a statement, to be submitted to the police, so as to reduce the risks of being interviewed, in some situations. But a doctor should be careful about refusing to be interviewed by the police (where the doctor is not a suspect) so as not to be in breach of the code of conduct. Any statement must be carefully considered, dealing with the facts that are known to the doctor, without speculating on matters. If the doctor has concerns about other clinicians they should disclose their concerns to the police in most instances.
If you are a doctor who has been asked to provide a statement to the police, or to attend an interview to assist the police as a non-suspect, we can offer legal advice and representation. To discuss such matters with a medico-legal advisor at Doctors Defence Service, without obligation and in strict confidence, give us a call on 0800 10 88 739.