Mr Victorino Chau, a nurse at Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport, was convicted of two counts of murder at Manchester Crown Court last week following a 3 month trial. He has been jailed for life.
Mr Chau killed two patients by injecting insulin into saline bags. He was also convicted of other charges, including 22 counts of attempted grievous bodily harm, for poisoning other patients.
This is an extremely rare and tragic case but, in the context of other recent events, primarily, the Germanwings plane crash where pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately flew a commercial airliner into the Alps killing all 149 people on board, it raises the question of putting our trust in professionals.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Crown Prosecution Service charging an NHS Trust with the criminal offence of corporate manslaughter for the first time, following the tragic death of a young mother at the Pembury Hospital, Kent. In that case, the CPS also charged two doctors with gross negligence manslaughter. We will have to wait to see whether convictions follow at trial but, it does show, alongside the Chau case, greater scrutiny of health professionals’ actions.
It is important to distinguish between the offences of murder and gross negligence manslaughter. Murder requires the prosecution to prove a deliberate intent to kill, whereas for gross negligence manslaughter, they must demonstrate that care was so poor as to amount to gross negligence but, importantly, with no deliberate intention to kill. In the eyes of the law, gross negligence manslaughter attracts less culpability. For example, where a doctor fails to help a patient but had no intention to kill (i.e. failing to operate for 40 hours despite knowing a patient had a perforated bowel). Because Mr Chau was found to have deliberately intended to kill, his actions rightly attracted the more culpable charge of murder, with the consequent severe custodial penalties.
The distinction between these offences may not always be clear, especially when viewed from the deceased’s family’s perspective.
A family may also want to hold the NHS Trusts who employ the healthcare professionals to account. For instance, it has been reported by the BBC that Mr Chau might not have had the requisite qualifications for employment as a nurse. This type of concern focuses attention on the management, recruitment and supervision policies and procedures adopted by the Hospital Trust under the field of corporate manslaughter (see my earlier blog for information about this) There has been no press coverage about a corporate manslaughter offence. This may be for a number of reasons but, I suspect, primarily because Mr Chau’s actions were so extreme that they could not be directly attributed to any senior management failing, irrespective of any questionable qualifications.
It seems clear to me that the public will rightly demand full accountability when their trust in professionals is undermined, especially in such harrowing circumstances as the Chau case. We will have to see how the CPS reacts to this and whether families are given the opportunity to hold both individuals and organisations to account.
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