The Hearing Opens

by Martin J Walker   

Inside the Hearing: Dr Wakefield, Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch on Trial

Inevitably the atmosphere inside the building was quite different from that outside. Inside the glass shell, there was a feeling of being in an underwater bubble. Anyone entering was greeted by an almost entirely black security personnel, attractively dressed young women with fixed smiles and confident young men in casual dress. On the third floor, through two sets of glass doors past a lounge area and the doors to the rooms provided for the press, off a corridor on the right is the entrance to the hearing room. All attendees in the public gallery and members of the press are searched before entering the long room.

About 60 foot long and 40 feet wide, the room is flanked by glass panels down one of its long walls. The atmosphere is one of quiet efficiency. There are between 30 and 40 participants in the hearing. The defendants and the adjudicators sit facing each other, the doctors with their legal teams are down the left hand side and the panel and GMC clerks down the right hand side.

It is difficult to imagine that this long mainly white room, with an oblong of tables in its centre, will be the daily place of work for the three doctor defendants in this case. For the next three months these highly trained doctors will have to defend many of the professional decisions which they have made over the last decade. Things that ‘just happened’ and that carried no particular importance at the time could now, in the light of this room, spell the end to their medical careers.

The room is not really like a court room, there is no central point of authority, although the principal prosecutor for the GMC, Miss Smith, sits at one end of the rectangular tables, she is not sitting higher than anyone else and is sometimes hardly noticeable amidst the books, boxes and reading rests that surround her. Nor are the ‘accused’ sitting together in a dock of any kind but dispersed amongst their lawyers.

Almost everyone in the room, outside the public area, is wearing black, its deadness only interrupted by the silver hair and white shirts of the men and on some women brief touches of ochre or translucent white of arms and legs. There is a round and almost classic clock on the wall at the far end of the room, on its face time passes very slowly.

The first days of any juridical hearings, whether they be at the Old Bailey or the General Medical Council (GMC) are always the worst for defendants. It is in these first days that the complainants or the prosecutors make their case, and knowing that they have a free hand in tarring the accused, prosecutors always over-egg the pudding.

Consequently, defendants find themselves powerlessly listening to an endless litany of their dishonesties and their dishonest nature. Amongst many unfairnesses introduced into the judicial process by the GMC on this first day, was an evidently unrestricted number of charges – Wakefield was faced with some 40 heads each broken down into two or three separate accusations, while Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch faced counts in their twenties and thirties. Anyone who has ever had any experience of juries or tribunals knows full well that with so many charges the the adjudicators are inevitably faced with a quandary.  As the mud is thrown at the wall some will inevitably stick. ‘Well’, they will say ‘We have found for the defendant on some of the charges, we have to find against them on some’.

Dr Andrew Wakefield, Professor Simon Murch and Professor Walker-Smith, the three accused, faced a formidable number of charges. In fact, they faced so many charges that one might imagine that the GMC had purposely covered every bit of green beige on the roulette table to ensure a victory, if not on the red or the black, then at least on number 38, para 1 (i) small a.

All three defendants, listened throughout the whole of Monday to a reading of the accusations first from the GMC and then from defence council and finally again, ‘just checking’ from the panel chairman. Like demonstrating a Chinese water torture, it would seem impossible for any member of the panel not to have been hypnotised into believing that the defendants were definitely guilty in triplicate. This strategy is perhaps equal in unfairness to the bizarre three year delay in formulating the charges; a delay that would probably not be tolerated in most third world regimes or still surviving Stalinist enclaves.

Of course, in a fairer system, the admissions and mutual agreements over some parts of the charges; those factual aspects which hold no legal or ethical value judgements, would all have been sorted out well away from the panel or the public, at a much earlier time.

Lawyers, however, enjoy this kind of legal accountancy, perhaps more than actually fighting cases or defending their clients. The hearing room echoed with bold legal statements such as:

18 (i), little 3 and little 5, is admitted as is 18 small k.

Each barrister seemed to revel in this soliloquy of small letters and numbers. And of course such terminally boring speeches, gave opportunity for the pearls of legal language to be dredged up from the deep.

‘Yes’ one barrister said to the Panel chair, ‘Sir, you are right and I am wrong’.

Brian Deer also faced his persecutors inside the building. During the morning break, two parents objected to sitting in the same public gallery space and indeed breathing the same air as him. There was nothing that the GMC could do about the air problem but ever eager to show fairness, security personnel roped off the section of the public gallery which contained Deer and the other embedded journalists.

Then at a break in the afternoon a security guard, checking under seats with the ‘wand’, thought he had found a bug under the seat next to that used by Deer. It turned out to be a fault in the machine and no device was found.

The sense of utter tedium, however, masks a very serious operation which is intent on stopping Dr Andrew Wakefield from ever again acting as a doctor in England and perhaps more exactly ensuring that he never appears as an expert witness in any cases of vaccine damaged children.