Two recent decisions of the President of the High Court have confirmed the High Court's jurisdiction to hear interim suspension applications in relation to medical practitioners in public, if the Court is of the view that it is appropriate to do so.
Whilst interim suspension applications are usually heard in camera, these decisions should act as a reminder to all regulatory bodies and practitioners of the High Court's discretion to hear the applications in public.
Section 60 of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007
Section 60 of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007 enables interim suspension applications to be made by the Medical Council in the High Court on an urgent basis where very serious allegations of misconduct and/or poor professional performance are made against a medical practitioner. An application will be granted if public protection requires that the practitioner in question be suspended, pending the outcome of a fitness to practise inquiry against the practitioner.
It is a draconian relief which is only granted if very serious allegations are made against the practitioner and interim suspension is necessary to protect the public pending the outcome of a formal inquiry into the allegations. These hearings are presumptively heard by the High Court in private, having regard to the fact that there have been no findings against the practitioners, that the professional reputation of the practitioner and their right to a good name may be significantly harmed by the publication of allegations which may subsequently not be proven. However, the Court retains a right to hear the matter in public, should it consider it appropriate to do so, in light of the circumstances of a given case.
Nurses, dentists and other healthcare professionals are subject to a similar jurisdiction under their respective governing legislation.
December 2021 and July 2022 Hearings
A section 60 application was brought by the Medical Council (the "Council") against a medical practitioner, Dr B in December 2021 (the "December 2021 Hearing"), which was heard in private. During the December 2021 hearing, both parties agreed certain undertakings and then president, Irvine P., accepted the undertakings and directed the matter be listed again on 1 July 2022. When the matter was before the court on 1 July 2022, Dr B disclosed that he had breached one of the agreed undertakings, as he had been convicted by the District Court for driving while disqualified without a licence and insurance. He received two separate 5 month prison sentences as a result, though he had appealed both sentences to the Circuit Court. The Council applied to the High Court for an application under section 60 and the matter was heard again on 27 July 2022 (the "July Hearing"). At the conclusion of the July Hearing, which was also heard in private, Barniville P accepted further undertakings from Dr B in lieu of an order suspending him.
The Mediahuis Application and Judgment
Following the July Hearing, Mediahuis Ireland Limited ("Mediahuis"), owner of the Sunday Independent newspaper, made an application for the case to be heard in public. They had previously reported on Dr B's offences, but were barred from reporting Dr B's section 60 application, due to the fact that the section 60 hearing had taken place in private. Dr B's offences were reported in the Sligo Champion on 17 January 2022, the Sunday World on 4 September 2022 and the Sunday Independent on 11 December 2022.
Barniville P granted the application and directed that the Section 60 application be heard in public and for previous judgments published to be amended to include Dr B's details. Barniville P considered Dr B's rights to a good name and livelihood and whether publication of his name in respect of the Section 60 application would be an unjust attack on those constitutional rights. Barniville P acknowledged the offences which were pleaded in open court and reported in Mediahuis' Sunday Independent, as well as other news outlets. In particular, Barniville P noted the comments made by Mr B in the Sunday World article dated 4 September 2022 in which he stated that "they haven't suspended me or anything". Barniville P found this statement misleading, as he had only decided not to make the suspension order due to the robust nature of the undertakings suggested by the Council. Barniville P concluded that to continue to hear the section 60 in private was a futile exercise due to the large amount of information in the public domain about Dr B, including the "health related voluntary undertakings to the High Court' on the public register and the information about his offences and subsequent sentences. He ordered that any future hearings of the section 60 application were to be heard in public and ordered that Mediahuis and others were permitted to name Dr B in publications.
Coincidentally, on the same day that this matter was heard and on an application by Mediahuis, Barniville P directed that an anonymity order be lifted in a separate section 60 application brought by the Council against a general practitioner who had pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography. There is no written judgment but the decision was subsequently reported in numerous newspapers.
These two decisions demonstrate that the High Court is willing to exercise its statutory jurisdiction to hold interim suspension applications in public without any reporting restrictions being in place in appropriate circumstances and should serve as a further reminder, to both registrants and professional regulatory bodies, of the High Court's discretion to hear suspension cases in public.