A nurse whistleblower is taking the profession’s regulator to court in order to help restore her reputation, having already successfully fought to clear her name, she tells Nursing Times.
The nurse claims the way the Nursing and Midwifery Council handled her case amounted to “defamation” and breached her human rights.
“I just don’t feel nurses are being given a fair hearing”
Vasanta Suddock, who says a smear campaign led to her wrongly being struck off, said the system was weighted against whistleblowers and she wanted to help other nurses receive a “fair hearing”.
She is seeking £500,000 compensation for loss of earnings and other personal and emotional damage, saying that employers “will not touch me”, despite being back on the register.
Ms Suddock was the matron and manager of a care home in Torquay when it went into administration in 2011 due to financial problems.
She went on to raise concerns about the way the home was run after administrators stepped in, and claimed her actions prompted a string of false allegations that saw her referred to the NMC.
Ms Suddock, who had worked at the home for 16 years, was subsequently found guilty of professional misconduct in 2015, resulting in her being removed from the nursing register.
“This case sadly illustrates the potential for grave injustice that can arise”
But, unhappy with how she had been treated, she took her case to the High Court where she represented herself and saw the NMC conduct and competence committee’ decision quashed.
Judge Ms Justice Andrews ruled there was evidence of a “conspiracy” to ruin her reputation and was critical of the conduct panel, saying it had failed to thoroughly examine the credibility and motives of witnesses when coming to its decision.
“The panel failed to appreciate there is evidence that strongly supports Ms Suddock’s assertion that someone, acting in bad faith, has set out to ruin her hitherto unquestioned professional reputation,” she said in her ruling in 2015.
“I have regrettably concluded that the panel’s approach to the question of credibility and reliability is so undermined in consequence that I cannot, in fairness, allow its adverse findings to stand,” she added.
However, the judge also said she felt the NMC had acted in good faith in bringing proceedings and the panel “did its best to reach a fair conclusion”.
“What caused it to fall into error was a failure to examine the evidence in the way that a court or legal tribunal would,” she said. “It placed far too much reliance on the demeanour of the witnesses.
“This case sadly illustrates the potential for grave injustice that can arise in proceedings of this nature when a person in Ms Suddock’s position does not have legal representation,” noted Ms Andrews.
Ms Suddock’s case then came back before an NMC panel, which in 2016 concluded her fitness to practise was not impaired, and that she could continue to work as a nurse.
Yet despite fighting successfully to clear her name, she claims her reputation had been so badly damaged that she could not get another job and was seeking justice by taking the NMC to court.
“I have won everything, even though I had to represent myself, because I couldn’t afford a lawyer,” she told Nursing Times. “But it has been horrendous. I have suffered financially – my friends are having to support me, I’m having to pay reduced mortgage repayments and had to sell my car. Emotionally it has had a real impact on me as well.”
Ms Suddock said she had since applied for 667 different nursing jobs but with no success. “Soon after I was cleared I thought I would be able to get another job, but I couldn’t because the allegations were still online” she said.
“I don’t blame potential employers, who will obviously think ‘no smoke without fire’, whereas before [the NMC case] I was head-hunted for loads of jobs,” she said. “People still will not touch me, because they always remember the bad not the good.”
According to Ms Suddock, her human rights have been breached by the NMC committee ignoring clear evidence that she was being framed and this – together with other issues, such as the time taken to investigate the case and the way information was shared by the regulator.
Exclusive: Nurse takes NMC to court to ‘help whistleblowers’
In her official claim to the High Court, she accuses both the NMC and its committee of breaching their legal duties by failing to abide by their own rules. “They failed to investigate, test or even corroborate the allegations against me in a fair and timely manner after I whistleblew 11 times against the referrers,” the claim states.
It also suggests that the NMC may have “intentionally” caused serious harm to Ms Suddock’s reputation “that can never been repaired”. “I should never have been in this position in the first place – it was all because I whistleblew,” she said.
“I would always challenge people for the sake of my patients and to ensure my patients got the optimum care, but that has come back to bite me, in that some people did not take too kindly to being challenged,” she said.
“The NMC really should have been able to see the allegations were vexatious,” she said. “They were given all this information – contemporaneous documents, CQC reports – and still rejected it all. It is almost like they wanted me proven guilty regardless.”
Ms Suddock said part of her reason for taking the NMC to court was to “help other nurses” and raise awareness of the treatment of whistleblowers.
“They say they have listened to Sir Robert Francis’s whistleblowing recommendations but I have yet to find any nurse who has been protected,” she told Nursing Times.
“I just don’t feel nurses are being given a fair hearing,” she said. “I have been contacted by others who have whistleblown and been struck off.”
She said she would like to see tougher regulation and scrutiny of the NMC itself. She argued the system was currently weighted against whistleblowers who may end up being referred to the NMC by the employer they have raised concerns about.
“I really think they need to investigate more thoroughly and obtain contemporaneous evidence immediately,” she said. “But that can be difficult, because the employer who has referred them won’t send it.”
“It is almost like they wanted me proven guilty regardless”
She added: “If a nurse is whistleblowing against the employer or any people in that organisation – they are not going to send any supporting documents for that nurse, so how are they going to ascertain the truth?
“They have the powers to access any report against you by anyone who has said anything bad about you. They should have the same powers to go into employment establishments to obtain all the other records,” she said.
Ms Suddock said she was determined to pursue the action but estimated she could face paying costs of up to £15,000 if the case was unsuccessful. She has secured a preliminary hearing set for 30 June.
The NMC confirmed it would be defending the case but said it would not comment further while it was still ongoing.
“We can confirm that we have received Ms Suddock’s claim and we are defending it,” said a spokeswoman. “As such, it isn’t appropriate for us to comment because the court proceedings are live.”