Heart doctor Philipp Bonhoeffer wins abuse-case ruling

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Indy Lifestyle Online

An internationally-renowned heart specialist won his High Court battle today to prevent hearsay evidence being used against him in disciplinary proceedings linked to child abuse allegations.

Philipp Bonhoeffer, who worked in London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, is accused of sexually abusing children in Kenya - allegations he strongly denies.

The General Medical Council referred his case to a fitness to practise panel disciplinary hearing.

The panel decided to consider hearsay evidence from a Kenyan man now in his late 20s, referred to as "Witness A", who alleges he was sexually abused by Professor Bonhoeffer when he was in his early teens.

Today Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Stadlen quashed the panel's decision to admit the hearsay evidence.

Disciplinary proceedings were halted last November pending the outcome of today's legal challenge.

Today, the judges declared the panel's conclusion that it was fair to admit the hearsay evidence "irrational".

In a written ruling, they also said it breached Prof Bonhoeffer's right under the European Convention on Human Rights to a fair hearing.

The case raised important issues generally relating to the circumstances in which hearsay evidence may be admitted in disciplinary cases.

During the recent hearing of the case, Kieran Coonan QC, representing Prof Bonhoeffer, who lives in Camden, north London, said the panel's decision threatened to violate the rights of "one of the world's leading paediatric cardiologists".

If hearsay evidence was called there would be no opportunity to cross-examine Witness A - the "single source" of evidence for the majority of the charges, said Mr Coonan.

Other individuals Witness A alleged were also victims had refused to support his claims.

Mark Warby QC, for the General Medical Council, which had applied for the evidence to be admitted, argued that Prof Bonhoeffer's rights to a fair hearing would not be violated because sufficient safeguards would be in place if it was was admitted.

After the ruling, GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: "The High Court has ruled that the GMC cannot admit hearsay evidence in this case.

"We will need to study the judgment carefully, but it is important to note that the judicial review was on a narrow point of law about the admissibility of some of the evidence.

"The GMC case remains open and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further on the details of the case.

"I can however confirm that the doctor continues to be suspended from the medical register under an interim order."

Mr Justice Stadlen said in the lead judgment that it appeared the factor the panel considered decisive in favour of admitting the hearsay evidence "was the serious nature of the allegations against the claimant".

The judge ruled: "In my judgment that submission is misconceived.

"It is of course self-evidently correct that the greater is the gravity of allegations, the greater is the risk to the public if there is no, or no effective, investigation by a professional body such as the (panel) into them.

"However, that factor on its own does not in my view diminish the weight which must be attached to the procedural safeguards to which a person accused of such allegations is entitled both at common law and under Article 6 (of the European Convention on Human Rights).

"To the contrary, the authorities to which I have referred suggest the reverse to be the case.

"The more serious the allegation, the greater the importance of ensuring that the accused doctor is afforded fair and proper procedural safeguards. There is no public interest in a wrong result.

"For these reasons in my judgment the (panel's) conclusion that it was fair to admit the hearsay evidence of Witness A and its decision to admit it was irrational and constituted a breach of the claimant's Article 6(1) right to a fair hearing and cannot stand. The decision must accordingly be quashed."

The court was told there was police evidence suggesting witness A would be exposed to "a significant risk of harm" in Kenya if he was identified in proceedings as having engaged in homosexual activity with Prof Bonhoeffer.

It was also claimed those who remained loyal to the professor might seek revenge against him.

Mr Justice Stadlen said the panel made no findings that there would be a significantly greater threat to the safety of Witness A if he came to the UK and gave oral testimony than if his hearsay evidence was put before the panel.

The judge said it was a "remarkable feature" of the case that Witness A had repeatedly expressed "his willingness and ability to attend to give live oral testimony and expressed himself as willing and able to do so right up to the date of the hearing in front of the panel".

Lord Justice Laws agreed.