Neurologist Dr Watt medical register removal an unlawful exercise in corner-cutting, judge rules

Dr Michael Watt's cases formed the biggest ever patient recall in NI medical history.

A tribunal which allowed a Belfast neurologist voluntary removal from the medical register was convened as part of an unlawful exercise in corner-cutting, a High Court judge has ruled. Mr Justice McAlinden described the process where Dr Michael Watt’s request was heard without the necessary jurisdiction as a “fiasco”. Having already quashed the decision to grant removal to the medic at the centre of Northern Ireland’s biggest ever patient recall, he delivered a scathing assessment of how the application was handled.

According to the judge, both the Medical Practitioners Tribunal (MPT) and the General Medical Council (GMC) lost sight of their primary objective to protect and maintain public health and safety. The verdict came in a challenge by some of those treated by Dr Watt who claim they were either victims of malpractice or misdiagnosed. 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 challenged the lawfulness of the decision taken by the MPT - a statutory committee of the GMC which operates separately from its investigatory role. The court heard Dr Watt appeared to have received a “get out of jail free card” at a secret or private hearing which denied large numbers of alleged malpractice victims public scrutiny of their clinical care. The neurologist was allowed to come off the medical register at a contrived hearing which the MPT had no power to conduct, it was contended. In quashing the decision last month, the judge held that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to deal with Dr Watt’s application because it had not begun hearing the fitness to practise issues. He stated that someone with a GCSE in law should have understood the statutory framework. Giving full reasons on Monday for his ruling, Mr Justice McAlinden said: “The entire process of fixing a hearing to determine VE before any (further) VE application was made was a device, or an exercise in corner-cutting that the MPT had no power to adopt.” Dr Watt’s representatives appeared to be either unaware of the jurisdictional restrictions or deliberately attempting to flout them, according to the judge. “Sadly, and somewhat inexplicably, it did not occur to anyone involved in this fiasco that what had taken place on September 27, 2021, ie a meeting to hear a VE application that did not exist yet and which the MPT had had no jurisdiction to consider and no jurisdiction to convene for, was not a proper commencement of anything,” he stated. “It was a nullity which had been unlawfully convened and conducted to deal with a VE application that had not even been made.” Mr Justice McAlinden also stressed the main aims of the GMC and the MPTS in protecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of the public. “In order to do so, these bodies must act at all times to promote and maintain public confidence in the medical profession, and to promote and maintain proper professional standards and conduct for members of that profession,” he said. “In this instance, I consider that both bodies clearly lost sight of that primary objective.”

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