In a unique decision of importance to all NHS employees and others who work for public authorities, an ex-paramedic who groped a vulnerable woman in the back of an ambulance while taking her to hospital has been cleared of misconduct after the Court of Appeal ruled that he was not the holder of a ‘public office’.
The man’s behaviour had been captured on CCTV as he fondled the woman’s breasts and put her hand on his groin after he was sent to her home following an emergency call. He admitted misconduct in a public office after a judge rejected his lawyers’ arguments that he could not have committed that offence.
Whilst ‘deprecating’ the man’s conduct, the Court found that a paramedic could not be viewed as a public official and overturned the man’s conviction. He and other health workers, whilst employed by the NHS, owed duties to individual patients and their employers, not to the public at large.
The Crown Prosecution Service had given ‘cogent reasons’ why it would not have been appropriate to charge the man with a sexual offence. However, his lawyers pointed out that, throughout the history of the NHS, not a single prosecution had been brought against an NHS worker for misconduct in a public office.
Whilst there was no doubt that NHS trusts owed duties to the public, the definition of ‘public office’ could not be extended to the role of a paramedic to enable the man’s prosecution. The Court ruled that in the context of a case such as this, it is important to underline that the focus is on the duties and responsibilities of the relevant individual and not on the overall responsibilities of the trust.
The judge said, “In this case, the nature of the duty undertaken by an ambulance paramedic is to treat and provide healthcare to those in need of emergency medical attention – it is a duty to the individual. In a general manner, the public would be concerned to know that that duty was being discharged in a proper manner and without misconduct. But that is not to say that there is any duty to the public which is different from, or additional to, that which is owed to the individual.
“In our judgment, the appellant was not – in his position as a paramedic – in a public office. Although we deprecate his conduct, we recognise that, in the particular circumstances of this case, it may not have been possible to bring a prosecution for a sexual offence.”