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New criminal offences proposed to protect hospital patients from gross negligence

Hospital patients who have been subjected to gross mistreatment and appalling standards of healthcare will be protected by a new criminal offence of ‘wilful neglect’ under plans sanctioned by the UK Government.

Law professors Karen Yeung (King’s College London) and Jeremy Horder (London School of Economics and Political Science) have put forward the recommendation in the wake of the Stafford Hospital public enquiry which called for tougher legislation.

In an article published in BMJ Quality and Safety this month, the law professors argue that existing legislation only protects mental health patients and children.

“There are a few cases where ordinary people – particularly the elderly and vulnerable – have been subjected to serious failings of care in hospitals in Britain and they have had no criminal redress,” Professor Horder said.

“As the law stands today, if you are maltreated in a hospital there is actually more protection from the criminal law if you die than if you do not. If you die, those responsible can be charged with manslaughter but if you don’t die it is much harder to find a criminal offence to deal with the worst cases of gross negligence.”

Under civil law, patients can sue a Hospital Trust for negligence and healthcare professionals can be taken to a disciplinary tribunal, but there is no redress beyond that.

The recommendations are part of the Government’s response to the inquiry led by Robert Francis QC following advice from the National Advisory Council on the Safety of Patients.

Professor Horder said that in the vast majority of cases, healthcare professionals had nothing to fear from the new law.

“All we are proposing is to extend the existing criminal legislation which applies to psychiatric care patients and children to everyone else. Criminal liability will only arise in the worst kinds of cases where the treatment is totally unacceptable.

“In an area where we put so much trust in people to get the treatment right and to avoid disastrous outcomes, we need the threat of criminal liability,” he said.

Notes to editors

How can the criminal law support the provision of quality in healthcare?" was published in the journal BMJ Quality and Safety. It is available at http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2014/02/07/bmjqs-2013-002688.full

Jeremy Horder is a Professor of Criminal Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the former Law Commissioner for England and Wales (2005-2010) and held previous positions at King’s College London and the University of Oxford.

Further contact:

For more information or for interviews please contact Professor Jeremy Horder on 020-7955-7246  j.horder@lse.ac.uk or Candy Gibson, LSE Press Office, on 0207 955 7440 or c.gibson@lse.ac.uk

17 March 2014