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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 July, 2005, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Doctors 'fear criminal charges'
By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter

Surgeons at work
Involuntary manslaughter charges are becoming more common
Doctors are increasingly fearful of facing criminal charges when patients die, medical experts say.

Medics can be charged with involuntary manslaughter if they make a mistake because of reckless behaviour.

Doctors argue the law is too open to interpretation and needs reforming. Prosecutions used to be rare, but have risen sharply since 1990.

The Home Office said the issue was likely to be looked at in its murder review, to be launched shortly.

Involuntary manslaughter is defined as when an individual kills someone as a result of some blameworthy act on their part, but without actually intending to cause death or serious injury.

The offence has long being controversial because of its lack of clarity - nine years ago the Law Commission called for its abolition on those grounds.

It used to be that if you made a genuine mistake and a patient died you would not face charges, that is not the case anymore
Dr Paddy Glackin, from Brent

Prosecution of doctors used to be rare - from 1867 to 1989 there were only seven cases, according to British Medical Journal research.

But during the 1990s, 17 doctors were charged with the offence, which is also known as criminal negligence, and since 2000 another 11 have been charged.

Cases have involved doctors being charged following deaths of patients during surgery and after being given medication.

Dr Paddy Glackin, a GP from Brent, in London, put forward a motion on the issue to the British Medical Association's annual conference in Manchester last week.

He said prosecutions should be stopped until the law was reformed.

"It used to be that if you made a genuine mistake and a patient died you would not face charges. That is not the case anymore.


"Prosecutions are being pursued arbitrarily, and it is unfair because too much is left to interpretation."

Ian Barker, a solicitor in the Medical Defence Union's legal department, said the rise in prosecutions had occurred because the definition of the offence had been relaxed and because society had become more litigious.

And he added: "What you will not see in the statistics is that there has been a significant rise in those doctors that are investigated, but not charged."

Dr Jan Wise, chairman of the BMA's medico-legal committee, said it was concerning as doctors could often face months of not being able to practice while unfounded allegations were followed up.

He said: "It is a serious matter."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said there was set to be a murder review in the forthcoming months which would look at a host of issues and concerns, including those raised about involuntary manslaughter.

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26 Jan 05 |  Merseyside

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