Virtual Fitness to Practise Hearings During the Pandemic
Solicitor, Charlotte Ellis discusses the recent use of virtual hearings in Fitness to Practise hearings. How those hearings have worked and what is anticipated for the future as the Covid-19 vaccine is rolled out. In addition she gives here opinion on how the pandemic has assisted with future applications for vido link evidence.
“Facing allegations which could end up with a medical professional having to give to defend themselves at a Fitness to Practise Panel hearing is nerve-racking and can be very distressing.
During the Covid-19 pandemic like many other organisations, prosecuting regulatory bodies had to adapt. Many Fitness to Practise Panel hearings were postponed. Measures were also put into place to ensure the safety of all of those having to attend these hearings.
One way systems around the hearing buildings are now in place. Other methods include more thorough cleaning procedures and different seating arrangements. The tribunals also have installed screens encourage all to wear of face masks.
Remote Hearings – Temporary Lockdown Measure , or are they Here to Stay?
During periods of lockdown, hearings have been conducted remotely on video or telephone links and this has been accepted as the new norm.
But is this just a temporary measure in the light of the pandemic we are currently facing. Is this a change that is here to stay?
In the past, defence solicitors, have faced very real objections to requests for witnesses to give evidence by video link. Formal applications must be made, the prosecuting regulatory body has the right to respond to any such request. Then the Case Managers can either agree to grant the application or refuse it. Prior to Covid-19 very good reasons were crucial for a request for a witness to give evidence by video link to be successful.
Why is it Difficult to Have an Application for Video Link Granted?
It is felt that the Panels get a much truer “feel” for a witness when they appear in person. It is said that the Panels can better judge the character of a witness if they are giving evidence live. Often the argument against the use of video link evidence is that the Panels can see “the whites of the witness’ eyes”. This allows the panel to reach a judgment more easily than they can if that same witness gives evidence by video link.
2020 has shown us that witnesses’ evidence can be given by video link. In fact, entire fitness to practise and interim orders hearings can be heard by video link. So far we have seen no detriment either to the prosecution or the defence.
The future of Virtual Hearings
With the vaccine for Covid-19 currently being rolled out, there is hope that things will get back to near if not total normality in the coming months. Is it likely that ‘virtual’ hearings will become less commonplace?
It remains to be seen but we anticipate that regulatory bodies such as the GMC, the GDC, the NMC, the GPhC and others will revert to how it was before the Coronavirus outbreak. Safety measures will remain and hearings will be held in person.
The difference now is that we expect that applications for evidence via video links with be easier. It will be more difficult for the prosecuting regulatory bodies to argue against the use of video link evidence. It will also be more difficult for Case Managers to justify a refusal of an application.”