Here, two tribunal assistants who help make sure hearings at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service run smoothly speak about their roles.
Michelle Shiels has been a tribunal assistant for two years and finds helping witnesses to be the most rewarding part of her job.
Zain Ahmed talks about the sensitive nature of some of the hearings he assists and the sense of achievement he feels helping doctors and witnesses.
What made you come to work at the MPTS?
Zain: In my old job I helped to prepare doctors who were going to be in the UK’s conflict and natural disaster response team.
I enjoyed working with doctors and was intrigued to learn more about tribunals held when a doctor’s fitness to practise has been called into question. When I heard about the job of a tribunal assistant at the MPTS it was just what I was looking for.
What was your first impression of medical tribunals?
Michelle: When I started working as a tribunal assistant I really did not know what to expect. I had seen television court room dramas where you see barristers in wigs presenting or defending a case in an ornate court room but a medical tribunal was something quite alien to me, as it is for many doctors and witnesses who attend a hearing for the first time.
Zain: On my first day at the MPTS, earlier this year, the seriousness of the allegations and the impact they can have on a doctor really hit home.
I was observing a tribunal where the evidence being heard was quite graphic and distressing for the complainant, and the doctor was evidently very nervous. Although I had been briefed on such cases seeing it first-hand was a real eye-opener.
Hearings can be very emotive. I am not ashamed to admit that during a short break on my first day I took a minute to compose myself before returning to the hearing and putting on a brave face – we are only human after all.
What does a tribunal assistant do?
Michelle: At the MPTS we have around 13 tribunal assistants who support hearings. The role is extremely varied; no two days are ever the same. The main responsibility of a tribunal assistant is to assist the tribunal clerk in the smooth running of the hearing.
On a daily basis l explain the hearing process to doctors and witnesses. We have information for people attending a hearing on the MPTS website but I think it is still very daunting, particularly for those doctors who, for whatever reason, do not have legal representation, or for witnesses who are anxious about giving evidence.
For me, the most rewarding part of the job is guiding doctors and witnesses through the hearing process and then seeing the sense of relief they feel when they finish giving evidence.
Zain: Assisting doctors and witnesses, who are before a tribunal, is a major part of the role. You need to remember that these individuals can be vulnerable and sometimes quite distressed. I always let them know my name and tell them I will help them with any questions they have. It is important to remain professional. Some doctors are very distressed that they might be restricted or prevented from practising medicine and the majority of patients and complainants are in an alien situation and very nervous.
What are the most important parts of the job to remember?
Zain: I think being empathetic to all parties in the case is essential. Although we are in tribunals every day it’s important to remember that for most people being before a tribunal is completely out of their comfort zone – whether they’re a witness giving evidence or a doctor appearing before the tribunal.
Getting up to speed of where the hearing is up to gives an assistant better knowledge of when parties of the hearing are needed back in the room and when documents are needed to be handed out.
The language in hearings is quite formal and often complex due to the medical detail so paying close attention is essential. Any information relating to a doctor’s health is heard in a private session and patients involved in hearings are anonymised, so assistants need to be careful not to divulge information that is confidential.
What do you find challenging about your role?
Michelle: It can be quite challenging dealing with doctors who are representing themselves as they are understandably anxious and unsure what to expect. But usually, with advice from the Chair of the tribunal or with support from the Doctor Contact Service – a voluntary service provided by the MPTS – they are reassured.
Zain: We regularly deal with vulnerable witnesses, so at times we have to put strong measures in place to keep the witness and the doctor separate to avoid them meeting in the corridor. Although the logistics can sometimes be a challenge we regularly manage such situations. Making all witnesses feel relaxed so they are focused on giving evidence is a priority.
Are there any aspects of tribunals might surprise people?
Michelle: We have recently started running some paperless hearings therefore all of the tribunal members are given iPads that I load up with the case documents so that they are ready to start the case when they arrive.
All hearings are also digitally recorded. I assist the tribunal clerk by testing the microphones before hearings start. Although these might seem to be quite routine tasks it is essential everything is in order as any delays to a hearing can cause extra stress for the doctor or witnesses and can be costly.
Hearings often go in camera for tribunals to deliberate, which means all parties are excluded from the room.
The majority of medical practitioners tribunals are held in public at the hearing centre in St James’ Building, Manchester. Members of the public are welcome to attend to observe hearings.
For more information email email@example.com.