The role of the Legally Qualified Chair at the MPTS

img Sally Cowen 2015

Sally was appointed in July 2017 to sit as a Legally Qualified Chair of the MPTS.
The MPTS was created as an independent Tribunal system, to hear cases of fitness to practice for the GMC. Those who sit as legal and lay members are independent of the GMC.

The unique system of the MPTS takes some elements of Civil Court Procedure and some of Tribunal Procedure from other areas. Case management prior to the hearing is carried out solely by an employed administrator of the MPTS and not by the panel members. Decisions about the length of hearing or documents and witnesses are therefore not controlled by those who will hear the case, prior to the day of the hearing.

The MPTS is evolving its procedure to include providing papers to the panel members in advance of the hearing. This will speed up the initial stages of the hearing, with less time spent by the parties waiting for the panel to get to grips with the case.

The process at the hearing involves three stages; where the Tribunal panel decide the facts, then separately consider whether there is an impairment and finally go on to decide an appropriate sanction. At each stage the panel must give their reasoned decision having heard evidence and submissions from the parties.

As a legally qualified chair Sally must advise the panel on the law, control the case management at the hearing and form an equal part of the panel decision making body. Unlike some other Tribunals, the chair does not hold a casting vote. Nor, are dissenting judgments allowed. Different skills need to be exercised at the same time, to ensure that the case progresses through the stages without unnecessary delay. Judgments are not reserved and the parties need the answer to each part of the process, before the next part can be addressed.

The majority of doctors who appear before the panel are unrepresented, so the legally qualified chair must also ensure that the doctor understands the process which is being applied and that the doctor is not placed at any disadvantage without a legal representative. The MPTS will provide representation to a doctor, for the purposes of cross examination of a complainant in a case involving sexual misconduct.

In many cases before the MPTS the doctor does not appear and the Tribunal must decide whether to proceed in their absence. This is not always straightforward and the MPTS criteria and interests of all parties must be considered on each occasion.

The challenge and fascination of the MPTS lies in the balance between protecting the public and the restriction of the livelihood of highly trained and skilled professionals.