Dr Michael Watt's voluntary removal from medical register to be quashed

A decision to grant a Belfast neurologist voluntary removal from the medical register is to be quashed, a High Court judge ruled today. Mr Justice McAlinden held that a Medical Practitioners Tribunal (MPT) had no jurisdiction to deal with Dr Michael Watt’s application because fitness to practise proceedings were not properly underway. In a withering assessment, he described the alleged circumstances surrounding the decision taken in private as “frankly shocking”.

The verdict came in a challenge by some who were treated by the medic at the centre of Northern Ireland’s biggest ever patient recall. In October 2021 the former Royal Victoria Hospital consultant was allowed a Voluntary Erasure (VE) from the register. It meant he would not face a public hearing about any fitness to practise issues. Former patients Danielle O’Neill and Michael McHugh both issued judicial review proceedings against the MPT. The court heard Dr Watt appeared to have received a “get out of jail free card”.

Dessie Hutton KC, for Ms O’Neill, said his client was among a “legion” of alleged malpractice victims denied public scrutiny of the clinical care they received. “They got notification of a decision taken during a secret or private hearing,” he submitted. “It’s something of an understatement to say that decision was met with dismay throughout this jurisdiction. Outrage might be a more appropriate term to categorise reaction.” Mr Hutton claimed “staggering numbers” of patients were initially recalled and then informed they had either been misdiagnosed or administered treatments not clinically indicated. “In the context of this extraordinary recall, with extraordinary consequences, and where accountability and transparency was expected, this decision looks like something of a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the doctor concerned,” counsel argued. Stressing the “sacred trust” imbued in the General Medical Council (GMC) and the tribunal, he told the court: “They are the bodies that look after the health professionals that look after us.”

Instead, the barrister contended, Dr Watt came off the medical register at an unlawful and contrived hearing which the MPT had no power to conduct. “What effect does that have on the promotion and maintenance of public confidence in the medical profession?” Mr Hutton asked. “This is quite clearly an exercise in corner cutting. It’s a contrivance and it is a jurisdictional power-grab by the MPT.” Ronan Lavery KC, for Mr McHugh, backed claims that no hearing took place to deal with the “burning concerns” of patients about alleged medical impairment. What occurred instead had the appearances of a Voluntary Erasure application being deliberately “slotted in” to avoid a fitness to practise hearing.

During a series of exchanges, Mr Justice McAlinden expressed alarm at how the issue was dealt with. “At its most charitable view this is a gross misunderstanding of the statutory framework; at its least charitable interpretation it’s a bit of a fix up,” he commented. “This is something that somebody with a GCSE in law should know.” The judge observed that a Voluntary Erasure application appeared to have been put before the tribunal “by sleight of hand”. “On what I have seen this is frankly shocking,” he added. David Dunlop KC, for Dr Watt, argued that it had been perfectly legitimate for the MPT to convene a preliminary hearing on what it recognised was an exceptional case. But the judge held that what took place was a legal nullity. He ruled: “I find that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the Voluntary Erasure because (it) had not yet begun hearing the fitness to practise issues. “I quash the Voluntary Erasure order made by the tribunal in this case.” Amid a round of applause from former patients in court, Mr Justice McAlinden went on: “If Dr Watt wishes to make such an application he will have to make that application afresh, and it will have to be considered and determined by the GMC in strict accordance with the statutory framework they are bound to comply with.” Outside court Ms O’Neill’s solicitor, Claire McKeegan of Phoenix Law, said the MPT will now have to deal with Dr Watt in an open and transparent hearing. “Our clients have sent a message that he cannot hide,” she added. Ciaran O’Hare of McIvor Farrell, representing Mr McHugh, claimed the case had uncovered a disturbing situation. He said: “The Court's ruling is a revelation with regards to the need for those who are responsible for safeguarding the medical profession to be entirely scrupulous when applying the rigour of the law."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.