High Court overturns PCC decision erasing dentist's name from register in Balachandra v GDC case

Citation: [2024] EWHC 18 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The High Court of Justice in the case of Manori Balachandra v The General Dental Council ([2024] EWHC 18 (Admin)) provides an insightful analysis centered on the appeal against the Professional Conduct Committee’s (PCC) decision to erase a dentist’s name from the register. The key legal discussions in this case broach diverse topics such as the right to a fair hearing, the standards for appealing PCC decisions, and the appropriate response when original evidence is lost.

Key Facts

Manori Balachandra, an NHS dentist, appealed the decision of the PCC to erase her name from the dental register due to alleged post-event fraudulent creation of handwritten clinical notes (“Brown Cards”). The PCC based its decisions on circumstantial evidence, expert opinions, and the absence of original papers lost due to scanning errors by NHSE’s agent, Capita. Critical scrutiny fell upon whether Balachandra backdated the disputed Brown Cards to counteract allegations of poor practice highlighted by NHSE and the GDC.

The judgment explores several legal principles:

  1. Fair Hearing and Loss of Evidence: The judgment reaffirmed the principle that losing original evidence does not necessarily preclude a fair hearing. However, prejudice resulting from such a loss should be assessed carefully.

  2. Appeal in Statutory Hearings: The Ghosh test (Ivey v Genting [2016] EWCA Civ 1093), which determines dishonesty, was a substantive basis in the appeal. It required assessing whether the appellant’s conduct was considered dishonest by reasonable standards, and whether the appellant herself must have realized her conduct was dishonest by those standards.

  3. Duty of Regulators: The findings suggested a deficiency in the regulatory body’s investigative process – the GDC did not examine practices common in Balachandra’s records during the relevant period or obtain comparative Brown Cards.

  4. Credibility and Weight of Expert Evidence: The judgment underscored the limits of the expertise, particularly regarding professional experts opining on the authenticity of records; such experts should not cross into factual determinations best left to a tribunal.

  5. Inherent Jurisdiction: The court exercised its inherent jurisdiction to ensure justice, which took precedence over procedural regularity on aspects of lost evidence and the conduct of hearings by disciplinary tribunals.

  6. Abuse of Process: The court reviewed the abuse of process doctrine, emphasizing its use only in exceptional circumstances and stressing its discretionary nature.

Outcomes

The outcomes of this case were multifaceted:

  1. Findings Overturned: The court set aside the PCC’s findings related to the alleged fraudulent creation of Brown Cards due to insufficient evidence and flawed reasoning by the PCC.

  2. Rehearing of Sanction: Given the erroneous findings, the case was remitted back to the PCC for a determination of the appropriate sanction.

  3. Immediate Suspension Order Terminated: The automatic termination of an immediate suspension under S.30 of the Dentists Act 1984 was declared, stating that it would end with the handing down of the judgment.

Conclusion

The case of Balachandra v GDC is a paradigm of the judiciary’s role in ensuring not only that justice is served but also that it is seen to be done. It underscores the higher courts’ commitment to maintaining the integrity and fairness of disciplinary procedures and emphasizes the importance of comprehensive evidence assessment by regulatory bodies. Significantly, it clarifies that when professional conduct is in question, procedural fairness and adherence to established legal tests, especially in matters of honesty and integrity, must be meticulously preserved.

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