Fifty years ago, when the Pharmaceutical Society – then the professional regulator – issued a code of conduct that would prevent pharmacies engaging in trading activities, a director of Boots claimed in the courts that the code of conduct was unlawful.
The Pharmaceutical Society argued that the case had been brought prematurely, because any pharmacist alleged to be in breach of the code could wait until he or she was accused of misconduct and then defend themselves in front of a disciplinary committee. The courts held that pharmacists should not be exposed to the uncertainty of whether they might be charged with misconduct.
This month, the judge Mr Justice Singh took a different approach when considering the Pharmacists' Defence Association's (PDA) challenge to the General Pharmaceutical Council's (GPhC) new standards. The introduction to the standards says they must be met at all times, not only during working hours. Among other things, the standards require registrants to:
- show respect for others
- treat people politely and considerately
- meet accepted standards of personal and professional conduct
The PDA sought judicial review, arguing that the standards are unlawful. It contended that it was wrong to extend the definition of misconduct so as to reach into trivial matters which could not have any bearing on a person’s fitness to practise. It also argued that the standards intruded too far into private life.
The judge rejected the PDA’s criticisms. He said “the standards must be interpreted in a way which is rooted in real life and common sense”. In effect, registrants must wait until they are accused before they can defend themselves.
The judge said that if registrants are not polite over a board game, they need not lose sleep when completing their annual fitness-to-practise declaration. On the other hand, he also said:
“There may be occasions which occur outside normal working hours and perhaps in a context which is completely unrelated to the professional work of a pharmacist which may be relevant to the safe and effective care which will be provided to patients. For example, if a pharmacy professional engages in a racist tirade on Twitter, that may well shed light on how he or she might provide professional services to a person from an ethnic minority.”
Although Mr Justice Singh held that the PDA case was not arguable – a key threshold in judicial review cases – the judgment will cast a helpful light on how the GPhC should approach future cases where its standards have been breached.
David Reissner is senior healthcare partner at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP