Posted by Ali Cloak, Partner
What might happen now a criminal investigation has been launched into medical deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital?
The police have announced that they will be undertaking a new criminal investigation into the deaths at Gosport War Memorial Hospital. More than 456 patients had their lives cut short by being administered high doses of opiate painkillers such as morphine between 1987 and 2001. Ali Cloak from our Inquests team takes a look at what might happen as a result.
The scandal at Gosport War Memorial Hospital came to light after a number of family members began reporting concerns to the police that their family members had died after being prescribed too much morphine.
Previous investigations and the Gosport War Memorial Inquiry
The police initiated an investigation in September 1998 when the daughter of Mrs Gladys Richards (who had died at the hospital) reported it to the police, however no action was taken. A number of families voiced concerns to the police again and a further investigation was taken in April 2000, however, again no charges were made and the investigation discontinued. The Commission for Healthcare Improvement and the NHS Ombudsman investigated again after being alerted by the police; however, it did not go anywhere.
In 2014 an inquiry was launched into the deaths and whether there had been a systemic failure in the lack of investigation into deaths at the hospital by the relevant medical regulators and the police.
The inquiry was completed in June 2018 and found that 456 patients had their lives cut short by the inappropriate prescription of painkillers at the hospital. The prescriptions had been authorised by Dr Jane Barton.
A new criminal investigation
The inquiry made recommendations that the police should act on the findings of the investigation. Previous investigations by Hampshire Constabulary into 92 of the deaths having resulted in no charges being brought.
However, Kent and Essex Police have announced that they will be carrying out a new investigation into the deaths, collecting statements from relatives and reviewing whether or not there is new evidence to proceed with the prosecution of any offences. The initial investigation will take approximately nine months.
The police have also announced that they will be putting together an expert medical panel to see if it is possible to prove that the administration of the painkillers caused the deaths of the individuals concerned. At the inquiry, this question would have been considered on the ‘civil standard of proof’, in that they would have only had to consider whether it was more likely than not that the deaths were caused by the administration of the painkillers. However, in a criminal case this would have to be proved ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’, a significant change which is likely to have a bearing on any finding.
What could happen?
The inquiry did not deal with criminal or civil responsibility but, instead, looked at the actions of the individuals involved and the overall systemic and institutional failures that allowed the deaths to continue for so long. Including failures of oversight from the hospital authorities, the General Medical Council (who oversee doctors), the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
The new police investigation will consider whether any new evidence, including any unearthed by the inquiry, means that they would be able to recommend to the CPS that the individual doctor involved could be prosecuted for offences such as murder or manslaughter by gross negligence. The charge of gross negligence manslaughter and particularly murder are likely to be very difficult to prove due to a need to show either an intent to do harm or that the doctor’s actions were ‘grossly negligent’, both of which require a high threshold of evidence.
We will not know more until the initial police investigation is completed, which could take many months.
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