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Court upholds disciplinary tribunal’s decision for SMC to pay surgeon’s legal costs of S$20,000

The Court of Three Judges, ruled that the fact that the SMC is the medical field’s professional watchdog does not mean that it can act with "absolute impunity”

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Singapore—The Court of Three Judges on September 4, Wednesday, upheld a decision from a disciplinary tribunal saying that the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) must pay the legal fees incurred by a high-profile plastic surgeon, who has remained unnamed in the court’s decision.

In the surgeon’s case, the SMC had found him at fault for having used the photos of a patient, as well as her medical information, without obtaining the woman’s permission.

The disciplinary tribunal, however, found the SMC’s charges to be “vexatious and baseless,” and ruled that the plastic surgeon was innocent.

Furthermore, the tribunal ordered that the SMC pay for the surgeon’s legal costs incurred for the hearing.

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While the SMC did not argue against the ruling concerning the surgeon’s innocence, the council appealed to the Court of Three Judges against the payment for the legal fees, which amounted to S$20,000.

According to the Court of Three Judges, the fact that the SMC is the medical field’s professional watchdog does not equate that it acts with “absolute impunity.”

“While we agree that a prosecutorial agency such as the SMC should be free to discharge its public function without the fear of costs sanctions looming over its head, we also consider that it cannot be allowed to do so with absolute impunity,” said Justice Andrew Phang, who delivered the decision for the court.

From 2008 to 2013, the patient had been treated by the plastic surgeon for enlarged parotid glands through the administration of Botox. 

However, she lodged a complaint against the doctor in 2014 for using “unanonymised photographs” of her in at least two medical presentations, as well as in a chapter of a book.

The photos, the doctor told the Straits Times (ST), were used in a medical book, for which he received no payment.

The doctor told the SMC’s Complaints Committee that he had actually gotten the patient’s consent, in writing, to use the photos and information. However, nearly 2 and 1/2 years afterwards, the council told him that it would pursue the charges against him.

The doctor was acquitted of all charges by a disciplinary tribunal, finding that he had satisfied approved standards in this situation. Furthermore, the SMC was faulted by the tribunal due to a lack of documentary evidence that would prove the claims of the patient.

The Court of Three Judges agreed with the tribunal, with Justice Phang saying “It should have been incumbent on the SMC to ascertain the veracity of these complaints before preferring the charges,” and that “the charges were not brought on grounds that reasonably appeared to be sound”.

The charges of the SMC had been based on testimonies from the woman, her husband, and another witness who did not have the requisite expertise in the matter.

The court also made note of the fact that the SMC knew the patient had affixed her signature to a statement allowing her photos to be used in publications that are medical or scientific in nature.

It also mentioned that the tribunal had expressed “its strongest condemnation” against the patient, saying, “This is by no means a common finding and not one that a court of a tribunal would make lightly.”

The woman and her husband had lied about other matters as well, and the tribunal said she was “a sophisticated, capable and highly educated professional with a mind of her own” even though she claimed to be a simple housewife. -/TISG

Read related: Medical Council to apply for reversal of conviction for doctor who received a S$50,000 fine

Singapore Medical Council to apply for reversal of conviction for doctor who received a S$50,000 fine

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