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Doctor struck off over MMR controversy clears name after GMC dismissal is over-ruled by High Court
Judge quashes finding of professional misconduct and striking off of Prof John Walker-Smith
Prof John Walker-Smith was head of department where Dr Andrew Wakefield's research linking MMR and autism was carried out
Extremely pleased: Professor John Walker-Smith, pictured here in 2007, won his appeal against the GMC
An eminent doctor has won his High Court battle against being struck off over the MMR jab controversy.
Professor John Walker-Smith appealed against the General Medical Council’s (GMC) determination that he was guilty of serious professional misconduct.
His fight for his reputation was supported by the parents of many children with autism and bowel disease seen by him at the Royal Free Hospital, north London, up to his retirement in 2001.
Today Mr Justice Mitting, sitting at London’s High Court, ruled the GMC decision 'cannot stand'.
He quashed the finding of professional misconduct and the striking-off.
Calling for changes in the way GMC fitness to practise panel hearings are conducted in the future, the judge said of the flawed handling of Prof Walker-Smith’s case: 'It would be a misfortune if this were to happen again.'
Prof Walker-Smith left court with members of his family, saying: 'I am extremely pleased with the outcome of my appeal.
'There has been a great burden on me and my family since the allegations were first made in 2004 and throughout the hearing that ran from 2007 to 2010.
'I am relieved that this matter is now over.'
Thanking his friends and supporters, including his own family and many parents and former patients, he added: 'I will never forget all the support I have received and I am truly grateful for it. I hope now to enjoy my retirement with my family.'
The MMR vaccination programme suffered a blow when Dr Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between the jab, bowel disease and autism in the late 1990s
In a written ruling, the judge made it clear today’s judgment was the end of the case, and the GMC did not intend to appeal.
The judge said the GMC fitness to practise panel’s conclusion that Prof Walker-Smith was guilty of serious professional misconduct was flawed in two respects.
There had been 'inadequate and superficial reasoning and, in a number of instances, a wrong conclusion'.
The decision to strike off had been defended at a recent hearing as 'just and fair – not wrong' by Joanna Glynn QC, appearing for the GMC.
She said: 'In spite of inadequate reasons it is quite clear on overwhelming evidence that the charges are made out.'
But the judge disagreed and said the misconduct finding and the sanction of erasure – striking off – 'are both quashed'.
In May 2010, Prof Walker-Smith lost his licence to practise along with Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who triggered a global scare about the MMR vaccine.
A GMC fitness to practise panel found both guilty of misconduct over the way the research was conducted.
The panel’s verdict followed 217 days of deliberation, making it the longest disciplinary case in the GMC’s 152-year history.
It came 12 years after a 1998 paper in the Lancet suggested a link between the vaccine, bowel disease and autism – resulting in a plunge in the number of children having the vaccination.
In 2004, the Lancet announced a partial retraction, and 10 of the 13 authors disowned it.
Dr Andrew Wakefield was struck off the medical register after his research linking autism and the MMR vaccine caused panic among parents
Dr Wakefield was the paper’s chief author and Prof Walker-Smith the then head of the department of paediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, where the research was carried out.
Prof Walker-Smith’s clinical role focused on treatment related to sick children, while his academic work included collaborating in research with Dr Wakefield.
Aged 73 when struck off, Prof Walker-Smith had by then been retired for a decade.
But the panel said it had – 'with regret' – decided that removing his name from the register was the 'only appropriate sanction' for his 'extensive failures', 'non-compliance with ethical research requirements' and 'irresponsible and misleading' reporting of the research findings.
A third doctor, Prof Simon Murch, who was a junior consultant in the department at the time, was cleared of serious professional misconduct because, although he had committed 'errors of judgment', he had acted in good faith.
The GMC’s chief executive Niall Dickson confirmed that reforms to disciplinary hearings were under consideration.
He said: 'We will now study the detailed judgment carefully to see what lessons we can learn from this complex case as we continue to reform our fitness to practise work.'
The result of today’s ruling was that Prof Walker-Smith is now a 'fully registered medical practitioner'.
But Mr Dickson added: 'Today’s ruling does not however reopen the debate about the MMR vaccine and autism.
'As Mr Justice Mitting observed in his judgment, ‘There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports (Dr Wakefield’s) hypothesis, that MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked’.
'Nevertheless Mr Justice Mitting has made a number of criticisms about the inadequacy of the reasons given by the panel for the decisions they made on the charges facing Professor Walker-Smith.
'The panel of medical and non-medical members, having heard all the evidence, were required to set out very clearly why they reached the decisions they did.
'They failed to do that in relation to key questions, including whether Professor Walker-Smith’s actions were undertaken for the purpose of medical practice or medical research and whether procedures performed on the children were clinically necessary.
'These were important points that needed to be addressed by the panel in the determination and the failure to do was the major cause of Mr Justice Mitting allowing the appeal today.'
Mr Dickson said that over the last two years the GMC had begun to deliver significant reforms, including major changes over the way disciplinary cases were adjudicated.
He said: 'A key change will be the establishment, in a few months time, of the new Medical Practitioner Tribunal Service which will take over the running and oversight of doctors' fitness to practise hearings.'