Two recent High Court judgments have clarified the Court's jurisdiction when asked to confirm a sanction handed down by a professional regulatory body following a fitness to practise inquiry. We look at the judgments.
In two recent professional disciplinary decisions, The Medical Council v M.A.G.A and The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland v O.C.M., the President of the High Court, Mr Justice Kelly, clarified the role of the High Court when dealing with applications to the High Court to confirm sanctions made by the Medical Council ("the Council") or the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland ("NMBI").
In both cases, the respective regulatory bodies' Fitness to Practise Committees had made findings of professional misconduct against a doctor and a nurse in relation to allegations involving dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour. The Boards of the Council and NMBI had decided to impose the sanction of "censure", or strong criticism, on each registrant and to attach conditions to their registration.
On hearing both applications at first instance, President Kelly expressed concern as to the appropriateness of the sanctions and questioned whether a censure and conditions on registration were sufficient in light of the dishonest conduct of both registrants. Ultimately, both matters were adjourned for the Council and NMBI to make further representations and submissions to the President.
The meaning of "a good reason not to"
Under the Medical Practitioners Act 2007 and the Nurses and Midwives Act 2011 (the "Acts"), the Council and NMBI are required to apply to the High Court to seek confirmation of a disciplinary sanction imposed if the registrant has not appealed the sanction and the sanction is serious enough. The Acts provide that the High Court shall grant such applications unless the Court "sees a good reason not to".
In the M.A.G.A. and O.C.M. cases, President Kelly reviewed the meaning of the expression "a good reason not to" and concluded that, in light of the statutory schemes in place, the Court's jurisdiction in deciding whether to confirm a sanction is limited. President Kelly confirmed that:
- The Court cannot act as a form of court of appeal on the merits of a decision of the Council or NMBI;
- The Court may refuse to confirm the decision of the Council or NMBI only where:
- it is satisfied there has been a substantial procedural irregularity in how the Council or NMBI has conducted itself;
- the norms of natural and constitution justice have not been applied;
- it is satisfied that no reasonable regulator could have come to such a conclusion on sanction.
President Kelly emphasised that whether the Court took a different view on the appropriate sanction was not a relevant consideration. The crucial question for the Court to decide was whether the decision of the regulator was "so unreasonable" that there was "good reason" for the Court to intervene. In both cases, President Kelly concluded that it could not be said that the Council or NMBI came to unreasonable decisions, and accordingly, confirmed both sanctions.
These cases emphasise that the High Court will not lightly intervene or trespass on the jurisdiction of the Council or NMBI in determining the appropriate sanctions to be imposed in disciplinary proceedings. The Court noted that both the Council and NMBI are responsible for maintaining standards in their respective professions and ensuring public confidence in the medical and nursing professions. As a result, the Court should defer to the decisions of these professional bodies regarding the sanctions to be imposed on their registrants.
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