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GMC swallows bitter pill of High Court ruling

13 March 2012

The General Medical Council has accepted a highly critical ruling from the High Court, which quashed a decision of its fitness to practise panel to strike off a leading professor at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.

A spokeswoman for the GMC said that it would not be appealing against the decision in the case of Professor John Walker-Smith, who had carried out tests on children which were later used by colleague Dr Andrew Wakefield to claim there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Mr Justice Mitting said both Walker-Smith and Wakefield had appealed after the GMC erased their names from the register in 2010, but Wakefield had subsequently abandoned his appeal.

The court heard that at a press conference, which Walker-Smith did not attend, Wakefield stated publicly the view which he had previously expressed privately to Walker-Smith that he could no longer support the giving of the MMR vaccine.

However, Walker-Smith made it clear in a letter to Wakefield that he supported government policy on MMR until there was more evidence.

“Dr Wakefield’s statement and subsequent publicity had a predictable adverse effect upon the take up of MMR vaccine of great concern to those responsible for public health,” Mitting J said.

“There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports his hypothesis, that MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked.”

Giving judgment in Walker-Smith v General Medical Council [2012] EWHC 503(Admin), Mitting J said the most “numerous and significant inadequacies and errors” were made by the fitness to practise panel when dealing with tests on 11 of a group of a dozen children whose case histories later featured in The Lancet.

“In no individual case in which the panel made a finding adverse to Professor Walker-Smith did it address the expert evidence led for him, except to misstate it.

“The issues to which this evidence went were of fundamental importance to the case against him. Universal inadequacies and some errors in the panel’s determination accordingly go to the heart of the case. They are not curable.”

Mitting J concluded that the panel’s overall conclusion that Walker-Smith was guilty of serious professional misconduct was flawed and based on “inadequate and superficial reasoning and, in a number of instances, a wrong conclusion”.

He said the panel “had to decide what Professor Walker-Smith thought he was doing.

“If he believed he was undertaking research in the guise of clinical investigation and treatment, he deserved the finding that he had been guilty of serious professional misconduct and the sanction of erasure.

“If not, he did not, unless, perhaps, his actions fell outside the spectrum of that which would have been considered reasonable medical practise by an academic clinician. Its failure to address and decide that question is an error which goes to the root of its determination. The panel’s determination cannot stand.”

A spokeswoman for the GMC said the effect of the ruling was that Professor Walker-Smith was now a fully registered medical practitioner.

“Over the last two years we have begun to deliver significant reforms to our fitness to practise work, including major changes in the way we adjudicate cases,” she said.

“A key change will be the establishment, in a few months time, of the new Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service which will take over the running and oversight of doctors’ fitness to practise hearings.”

She said the new tribunal would be part of the GMC but would operate as an autonomous unit separate from other work. Judge David Pearl was appointed chair of the tribunal last year.

Categorised in:

Professional negligence