Wilful neglect could become a criminal offence by 2015, with health professionals facing up to five years in prison for “reckless actions”.
Amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, tabled by the government on 10 June, could see health professionals facing criminal sanctions for wilful neglect as early as next year.
Under the new law, health professionals and organisations operating across all health and social care services across England and Wales could be prosecuted “for deliberate or reckless actions, or a failure to act”. Those found guilty could face fines of up to £5,000 or prison sentences of up to five years.
The amendment follows recommendations from Robert Francis following the care scandal at Mid-Staffordshire, with health minister Norman Lamb stressing that the law was about “closing the gap in current laws so that this type of poor care cannot go unpunished”.
“The proposal is part of a package of measures after Francis to ensure better protections for patients, more support for NHS staff and greater transparency and openness in the NHS.”
The Department of Health estimates that the new law could see up to 240 criminal prosecutions a year, costing the justice system £2.2m, but would “ensure there is consistency and also sends a strong message that poor care will never be tolerated”.
Dr Nick Clements, head of medical services at the Medical Protection Society, spoke out against the amendment, saying there was “no justification” for the new law.
Dr Clements described the current regulatory framework as “effective at censuring unprofessional behaviour” and said the government should have given the law change “time to receive the serious scrutiny it warrants, not just rushed through as an amendment to an existing bill”.
The amendment also faced criticism from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, who warned during the consultation process that imposing criminal sanctions could encourage “defensive medicine” and make staff less inclined to be open about mistakes.