The High Court has remitted a case back to the General Optical Council after finding bias based on a conflict of interest by a panel member.

In the case of Suleman v General Optical Council [2023] EWHC 2110 (Admin) (16 August 2023), a Dispensing Optician was erased from the GOC’s register, accused of, in summary, carrying out restricted activities as a dispensing optician whilst unregistered and that “she had dishonestly given her employers a false registration number in order to conceal that she was not yet fully qualified.”  The accusations arose from her work at a branch of Specsavers.

The Dispensing Optician challenged the erasure on two grounds but focussed on the issue of bias.

The bias issue arose from the fact that, it was argued, a fitness to practise panel member had a prejudicial interest as a previous Specsavers franchisee and locum working for Specsavers (at the time of the hearing).

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Mr Justice Chamberlain agreed that the panel member had both a “substantial” and “long-lasting” relationship with Specsavers that would rise, in the mind of the fair-minded and informed observer, to a real possibility of bias.

Chamberlain J ruled that the panel member:

“… should, in my view, have recused himself. I do not consider that the Committee’s decision is saved because he was only one its members. A similar point was made and rejected in In re Medicaments (see at [99]). In that case, the panel consisted of three members, not five, but the same reasoning applies. A panel which has sat for ten days (as the Committee has here) will be bound to have discussed the case in detail. It is impossible to know how influential the views of the individual panel members have been. If one member is tainted by apparent bias, the Committee’s decision will be vitiated. I would therefore allow the appeal and remit the matter to a differently constituted committee.

“For these reasons, the appeal is allowed and the matter remitted to the GOC for hearing before a differently constituted Fitness to Practise Committee.”

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