Medical Council's ban on note-taking at disciplinary hearings criticised

Medical Council's restriction at disciplinary inquiries unreasonable, patients' group says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 March, 2013, 4:49am

The Medical Council has been urged to abandon a regulation that bans the public from taking notes during its disciplinary hearings.

A patients' group says the restriction - described by a leading barrister as tougher than rules in the courts - inhibits it from commenting on or taking follow-up action on cases.

But the council says the rule is needed to ensure a fair hearing and prevent prompting of witnesses.

Patients' Rights Association chairman Tim Pang Hung-cheong told the South China Morning Post he was forbidden from taking notes at an open hearing on October 24 in which his client had to give evidence.

He said the "unreasonable" limitation obstructed the group from doing its duty to ensure patients' rights were respected.

"I need to observe and take notes to see whether the council has treated patients fairly, what questions have been asked and the procedures of the hearing ... so that I can make references for future cases," he said.

Barrister-legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah said there was no such ban in the courts or other statutory disciplinary bodies, such as the Bar Association.

"I cannot see why the public should be prohibited from taking notes if the hearing is open to the public," Tong said.

I cannot see why the public should be prohibited from taking notes if the hearing is open to the public
Barrister-legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah

In a letter replying to Pang, the council - which is responsible for licensing doctors and regulating the profession - said the ban was necessary "to ensure a fair hearing and to prevent the notes being abused to prompt witnesses who will give evidence in the inquiry".

"At the beginning of each inquiry, members of the public are reminded of the rule against note-taking without prior permission," it wrote.

"A person who has a legitimate reason for taking notes may apply to the council for permission at the beginning of the inquiry. Permission will be granted only if the applicant has a legitimate reason," it said, noting that the restriction did not apply to the press.

A judiciary spokesman said there was no rule to prohibit the public from taking notes during civil or criminal court cases, although recording and filming are not allowed.

It said that all hearings should be open to the public to ensure a fair trial unless there were special circumstances.

"No prior permission is required if the public takes notes during a hearing; but when the action obstructs the proceedings the court would prohibit it."

Pang said the Medical Council was often criticised for operating as a "black box" and doctors sitting on it "might be inclined to protect their own kind".

He urged the council to update its policy and operate in a more transparent way.