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Anti-abortion doctor asks High Court to order HPCSA to hold his disciplinary hearing

A doctor, who five years ago allegedly tried to dissuade a woman from an abortion, has asked the High Court to compel the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) to hold a disciplinary hearing into his actions, reports MedicalBrief. Dr Jacques de Vos is in a Catch-22: The HPCSA won’t reconvene the partially completed disciplinary because the complaint has been withdrawn but it won’t issue him with a Medical Practitioner number.

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Judgment in the review application case was reserved in the North Gauteng High Court on 1 February, after De Vos’s legal team argued that his right to be heard had been infringed. The matter stretches back to April 2017, when a pregnant woman supposedly complained that De Vos had allegedly treated her in an unprofessional manner.

She has since made public that she had lodged no formal complaint and, says De Vos’ lawyer, Martus de Wet, “it is clear from the paper trail the real complainants were certain officials at 2 Military Hospital, where De Vos was doing his internship, who refused to sign off on Dr De Vos pending guidance from the HPCSA intern committee.” The intern committee passed the buck to the prelim committee who referred it to the professional conduct committee, says De Wet.

After pressure from De Vos’ attorney, the HPCSA indicated in September 2020 that it would not reconvene as the charges has been “withdrawn”.  However, the hospital still refuses to sign De Vos off on inter alia the same complaint it referred to the HPCSA in 2017.

Despite De Vos pleading not guilty to the charges more than two years ago, a hearing has yet to be held to completion, says De Wet. “De Vos seeks a mandatory order directing the respondents to take all steps necessary and do all things required to reconvene the aforesaid Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) and to set a date for the continuation of the inquiry and hearing, which has commenced against him.”

Timeline of events

  • In April 2017 De Vos, during his internship, was prematurely removed, without any disciplinary hearing, from the Gynaecology and Obstetrics rotation at 2 Military Hospital, Wynberg and transferred to Casualty until the completion of the two-and-a-half-year internship period (normally two years) that he was granted because of a disability.
  • After some months of delay, the HPSCA set the disciplinary hearing down for August 2018. He was charged with dissuading the patient from terminating her pregnancy, disrespecting the dignity of the patient, and using emotive language to convey his beliefs.
  • A week before the 2018 hearing, the HPSCA withdrew the charges, only to reinstate them a few months later, with a new hearing date of August 2019.
  • At the August 2019 hearing, De Vos pleaded not guilty to the charges. However, his lawyers complained that they had been unable to prepare his defence because the HPCSA was not responding to requests for information that they were legally entitled to have, including the formal complaint. The hearing was set down for 28 October 2019.
  • After two days of arguments in October 2019, the PPC struck two down as unlawful two of the four charges against De Vos. 
  • In December 2019, the HPCSA’s PPC hearing was adjourned immediately after De Vos had pleaded not guilty, because the HPCSA was not ready to present. Also, the HPCSA evidence leader wanted to appeal a decision by the PPC to withdraw two of the four charges. No review application was launched.
  • The matter was postponed to April 2020, but citing COVID, the HPCSA did not convene the PPC hearing. After pressure from De Vos’ attorney, the HPCSA indicated in September 2020 that it would not reconvene the PPC. 
  • In October 2020, the HPCSA said it had “no choice” but to “close the file”, after the woman withdrew the complaint. De Wet says that one of the “strange” aspects of the matter is that the legal team had repeatedly through the protracted process sought copies of her initial statement, but it was never provided.

A life in limbo

While the process has been underway at the HPCSA, De Vos has been barred from completing his community service, without which he cannot practise. De Wet told MedicalBrief that aside from the “tremendous emotional toll”, De Vos’ physical condition – he is in a wheelchair – makes De Vos’ plight “particularly severe”.

“The financial impact has been huge. He has also not been able to specialise as his career is on hold, said De Wet.

“According to South African law, if someone enters into a plea, they are entitled to a verdict,” said De Wet. Because his client has been “severely prejudiced” for several years, it was decided to approach the courts for relief.

“He has a right to have the proceedings and inquiry against him before the PCC brought to finality in accordance with a fair, just, equitable and lawful procedure. It is submitted that the rules of natural justice specifically include the right to a verdict after a plea in any matter where a person is accused of wrongdoing and is asked to plead guilty or not guilty,” said De Wet. The application demands the PCC be heard within six weeks.

“As far as we know, this has been unprecedented in terms of the extreme ongoing prejudice against a doctor who has not been found guilty of any form of misconduct,” De Wet told MedicalBrief. “Hopefully this case will set a precedent to prevent this kind of unfair practice in future.”

De Wet said he wanted to acknowledge the “enormous effort” of Adv Keith Matthee SC and Adv Andrew Duminy, who have represented De Vos pro bono, as well as Doctors for Life, “for ongoing support in terms of providing expert witnesses as well as financial support to cover direct expenses of Dr De Vos in this case.”

De Vos’ legal team describe the HPCSA’s opposition to the application as “uncalled for and frivolous”. “The infringement of De Vos’ rights could have been stopped simply by reconvening the hearing at very little cost.” It asked the court to order that the HPCSA officials responsible should be ordered to be held personally responsible for costs.

This is a free-to-use MedicalBrief article produced under Creative Commons Licence.
We ask republishers only that they acknowledge MedicalBrief as the source and if possible link to the original article.

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

New HPCSA president ponders the poisoned chalice

 

High Court expressed doubts that 'nonchalant' HPCSA is fit-for-purpose

Fresh criticism of 'dysfunctional' HPCSA

 

HPCSA to appeal dropping of two charges against anti-abortion doctor

 

Anti-abortion doctor's hearing adjourned as committee ponders charges

 

HPCSA fails to meet the document deadline in De Vos case

 

 

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