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Vilification and patient information

Health iStock 000005083391XSmall 146x219The President of the Family Division has ruled that a ‘vilified’ doctor could not publish a patient’s private information contained in documents that were part of family court and fitness to practice proceedings. Robin Hopkins considers the judgment.

The case of In the Matter of C (A Child) (Application by Dr X and Y) [2015] EWFC 79 involved, in the words of Munby J, an unusual and indeed unprecedented application. It pitted the right to defend one’s reputation against the privacy and confidentiality rights of others. In this case, the latter won.

Dr X had treated C and C’s mother; he had also been an expert witness in the family court care proceedings concerning C. C’s mother was unhappy about the treatment given by Dr X. She complained about him to the GMC, whose Fitness to Practise panel in due course found the allegations against Dr X to be unproven. C’s mother also criticised Dr X publicly in the media.

Dr X felt that his “otherwise unblemished reputation … has been cataclysmically damaged … through inaccurate reporting and internet postings” and that he has been “unfairly and unjustly pilloried by the mother and, through her, by the press” (his skeleton argument, cited at para 10 of Munby J’s judgment).

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Dr X wanted to be able to put his side of the story, and to have the original source documents – from the family court proceedings and the Fitness to Practice proceedings – available, to quote from (while respecting anonymity) if his public statements were challenged. He sought disclosure of documents from those proceedings.

One difficulty he faced was that the law restricts the use to which documents from family proceedings could be put. The court had a discretion to allow disclosure, but generally subject to restrictions on the use to which documents could be put.

A further major difficulty was that he was bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, both as a matter of legal duty and professional confidentiality. That duty permits of exceptions – for example, to allow a doctor who is being unfairly vilified by a patient to defend himself – but even then any departure from confidentiality obligations must be proportionate.

The same applies to interference with patients’ privacy under Article 8 ECHR; privacy rights were particularly acute here, because what was sought (for disclosure, and for deployment in public statements) was “a mass of medical materials relating to the mother’s mental health” (Munby J at paragraph 42). Disclosure of those materials, even in redacted form, would have major implications for the privacy of the child, C.

Those difficulties were fatal to the application. Munby J said that “the remedy being sought by Dr X – permission to put the mother’s medical records and related documents into the public domain, at a time and in circumstances of his own choosing and without any of the safeguards usually imposed – is wholly disproportionate to anything which he can legitimately or reasonably demand”.

In relation to the documents filed in the Fitness to Practise proceedings but which were not part of the documentation filed in the care proceedings, the court had no jurisdiction to grant an application for disclosure. In any event, disclosure of the confidential material Dr X sought for deployment in the public domain would again be wholly disproportionate.

Robin Hopkins is a barrister at 11KBW. This article first appeared on the set's Panopticon blog. Robin can be contacted on 020 7632 8500 or  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He also tweets at @hopkinsrobin.

Heather Emmerson of 11KBW appeared for the GMC.

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