The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) appointed more than 70 lawyers to chair and assist tribunals where doctors’ fitness to practise has been called into question. Andrew Lewis, one of the new Legally Qualified Chairs, speaks about his role on a tribunal and what witnesses and unrepresented doctors can expect if their hearing is chaired by someone with legal qualifications.
When I joined the first batch of Legally Qualified Chairs at the MPTS I had been a criminal barrister for over 30 years with experience of cases involving vulnerable witnesses and defendants and the use of special measures and intermediaries. I had also been a tribunal judge (of the First Tier Tribunal Mental Health) for over 20 years, a legal assessor at the Nursing and Midwifery Council and The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and a lay chair at the MPTS since 2014.
The appointment offered me a unique opportunity to draw upon the whole range of my skills to work with the MPTS at a crucial stage in its development.
From the day I arrived, it was impressed on me that the MPTS is determined to be fair to everyone appearing before it and will apply whatever resources are necessary to achieve that. I am determined to remain true to that ethos; ensure that good legal advice is at the heart of all the tribunal’s deliberations; ensure that the proceedings are increasingly transparent and that the length of hearings is kept under control. Doing justice takes time but excessively long hearings and adjournments can become an obstacle to justice by making it harder for doctors to attend, increasing their legal costs and leading tribunals to lose its focus on important evidence.
The position of unrepresented doctors
I have no doubt that the litmus test of the new developments will be whether they are fair to unrepresented doctors. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that a tribunal chaired by a LQC does not become legalistic, unnecessarily formal or difficult for a doctor to follow. Personally, I don’t believe doctors have anything to fear because everyone I have spoken to is determined to ensure that the tribunals remain true to their ethos of fairness.
The conduct of hearings
During hearings, I never lose sight of the importance of ensuring that the doctor can follow the proceedings and give their best evidence. When a doctor is not represented, I explain each step of the proceedings and make sure that they understand what they must do. I explain the issues and discuss any evidence they may need to put before the tribunal. I ensure that the doctor has the same opportunity as any witness to give their evidence. I also ensure they have time to prepare questions and submissions and take advice.
In appropriate cases, I also encourage the tribunal to adopt an inquisitorial approach to the evidence, which means asking questions ourselves when we judge that the evidence has not been adequately tested. I explain in the hearing that the tribunal is doing that and why.
Advice to doctors
My advice to doctors who must appear before the tribunal is to prepare early. Take whatever advice you can, in particular legal advice. If, for whatever reason, you cannot get legal advice, speak to people who have been before the tribunal; look at the helpful material on the MPTS’s website; read the decisions of the tribunal on its website, so that you can see what matters to tribunals.
It will also assist you if you engage from the start with the short case management hearings that take place before the main hearing and are focused on making sure the hearing is run properly. By taking part you ensure that you know what evidence you will have to deal with and that proper directions are made to receive your evidence.
The Doctor Contact Service can also support you with any queries about the hearing process when you attend the MPTS. The team of volunteers cannot provide legal advice but will help to ease stress you might be experiencing.
If you can possibly make the time, visit a tribunal and watch what happens so that it is not strange when you arrive. Make sure you know how to access the personal support available at the hearing centre.
I am determined that the appointment of LQCs will not make the tribunals legalistic or forbidding. The challenge for all of us is not to copy the role of legal assessor but to ensure we provide the same standard of advice and effort Legal Advisors put into remaining abreast of legal developments so that tribunal decisions continue to be based upon good legal advice. Although my work is predominantly as a LQC, I will also carry out the role of Legal Assessor when a tribunal is not chaired by a LQC and will advise the tribunal with matters of law.
Our task is to protect the public and we will best achieve that if our hearings are open, transparent and fair to everyone who appears before us.
To find out more about LQCs at the MPTS see the MPTS website.