In an important ruling for professional regulatory bodies, a mental health nurse has failed to convince the Court of Appeal that his suspension for 18 months pending investigation of disputed misconduct allegations amounted to a violation of his human rights. The court rejected arguments that he had been entitled to present evidence in his defence at such an early stage of the proceedings.
The nurse acknowledged that he had ‘overstepped professional boundaries’ in his dealings with a female patient and had been summarily dismissed by his NHS employers on grounds of gross misconduct. However, he denied that his actions were sexually motivated and argued that many of the patient’s complaints against him were fabricated.
His case was referred to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) the investigations committee of which ruled that it was necessary for the protection of the public to suspend him from practice pending fuller inquiries. His High Court challenge to that decision was subsequently upheld in part and an order placing conditions on his practice was substituted.
On appeal, his lawyers argued that he had not been given any fair chance to put forward his account of events before the committee suspended him on an interim basis. It was submitted that article six of the European Convention on Human Rights demanded that he should have been granted the opportunity to testify orally and present other evidence in his defence.
However, dismissing his appeal, the court emphasised that the NMC’s primary duty is to protect the public. It was not the investigations committee’s role to rule on the merits of the allegations before imposing an interim suspension. That duty lay upon the NMC’s conduct and competence committee at a later stage in the disciplinary process.
The nurse’s arguments were inconsistent with the statutory scheme under which the NMC operates and, had they succeeded, the impact on procedures followed by professional regulatory bodies in general would have been ‘profound’, the court observed.