High Court Confirms Test for Confirming Decisions of Inferior Tribunals

Irish courts are often given jurisdiction to “confirm” decisions of specialist tribunals, particularly professional disciplinary bodies.  Such bodies may be required to have particular decisions (eg decisions sanctioning a member) confirmed if the member does not appeal the decision.  Confirmation by a court of the decision serves two purposes: (1) it confirms that a proper or sufficient standard of justice has been applied by the specialist tribunal in its decision-making; (2) it allows more effective enforcement (eg by contempt of court) if a party fails to abide by the decision.

In addressing the first purpose, the court is not sitting as an appellate court, and it is not required to review the merits of the decision. Rather, it is performing a kind of “reverse judicial review”; it is considering whether the decision was taken in a way that was legal (eg properly one the specialist tribunal had power to make); procedurally regular (eg that the member concerned had a fair opportunity to put his or her case) and rational or reasonable. 

The role of the High Court in such applications was recently considered in Medical Council v MAGA [2016] IEHC 7791 where the Medical Council sought confirmation of its decision to censure a doctor and attach a condition to his registration where the doctor had been found guilty of professional misconduct.  Under section 76(3) of the Medical Practitioners Act 2007, the Court shall, on the hearing of an application …, confirm the decision ….unless the Court sees good reason not to do so.

The Court had initially had reservations about whether a censure with conditions attached was sufficient in light of the factual findings made against the doctor. In its evidence, the Council set out factors which it may consider before imposing sanctions including proportionality, outcome, insight, evidence of adherence to an ethical guide and consideration of testimonials and references. The Council chairman had reminded members of the need to maintain the reputation of the profession and to maintain public confidence in the integrity of the profession. Another essential condition is ensuring patient safety. It was noted that the relevant actions of the doctor did not involve a threat to patient care and safety and that there were no concerns about the doctor’s ability to practise safely as a doctor.  The doctor had admitted the factual allegations at an early stage of the inquiry and also admitted that they amounted to professional misconduct. Therefore, the Council had concluded that a sanction of censure and attaching conditions to registration was fair and proportionate. 

The Court accepted the argument that the jurisdiction which is conferred under s.76(3) is not an unfettered one and it does not constitute the High Court as an appeal tribunal on the merits in respect of an application of this sort. Rather, the obligation of the court is to deal with the issues of the type identified, such as adherence to correct procedural norms, adherence to the requirements of natural and constitutional justice and the making of a decision by the Medical Council which is a reasonable one or to put it another way is one which cannot be said to be one which no reasonable council would come to.2

The fact that the court might take a different view on sanction does not enter into consideration and the questions the court has to ask itself are whether there been any procedural impropriety; whether there been any failure to adhere to the rules of natural and constitutional justice and whether the decision arrived at is so unreasonable as to warrant the intervention of the court.  

Because the answer to all three questions in this case was “no”, there was no good reason for the court to disturb the decision, which was accordingly confirmed.  The requirement of court confirmation provides important safeguards for professionals involved in such cases, but the court is unlikely to intervene absent serious defects in the professional body’s procedure for or approach to making the decision. 

This document has been prepared by McCann FitzGerald LLP for general guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for professional advice. Such advice should always be taken before acting on any of the matters discussed.