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Queensland A-G seeks secret tribunal hearing

By Hedley Thomas

February 14, 2007 12:30am

AFTER an avalanche of evidence and an intense public debate for the past two years, Queensland Attorney-General Kerry Shine is now seeking a secret tribunal hearing over rogue surgeon Jayant Patel's alleged medical negligence.

Dr Patel, 56, faces criminal prosecution in the Supreme Court in Brisbane if he is extradited from his home in Portland, Oregon, over alleged offences including manslaughter, grievous bodily harm and fraud.

He is yet to be charged pending the completion of a brief of evidence from Homicide Squad police and the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions.

But the Medical Board of Queensland, which permitted Dr Patel to practise at Bundaberg Base Hospital after failing to detect the bans on his surgery in the US, wants to prosecute him in his absence in the Health Practitioners Tribunal. Penalties, including a fine and strike-off, that could flow from a finding against Dr Patel in the tribunal would have little or no impact as his notoriety and existing bans make it almost impossible for him to be registered to practise anywhere in the world.

Paul Freeburn, counsel for the Attorney-General, told tribunal judge Kerry O'Brien yesterday that the evidence to be presented in the tribunal and the subsequent publicity could prejudice future criminal proceedings and influence jurors.

Dr Patel worked in Bundaberg for two years as director of surgery after lying about his history in the US, where he had been disciplined and banned from performing certain types of surgery because of negligence. As a result of an inquiry in Queensland in 2005, he was blamed for at least 17 deaths.

Mr Shine said the bid for a secret hearing was being made at the request of the DPP, Leanne Clare SC.

"It is in the public interest that the criminal proceedings should be finalised in a court without being jeopardised by any prejudicial public comments or actions," he said.

Ms Clare and the surgeon's former legal team have warned that the extradition process could be time-consuming, particularly as Dr Patel is tipped to fight extradition to Australia.

His previous efforts to return voluntarily were rebuffed in secrecy by the Beattie Government shortly before the state election in September last year, leading to the resignation of then attorney-general Linda Lavarch.

Beryl Crosby, leader of the patients' support group, said the board should postpone its case.

"We are more interested and concerned about the extradition process than the board's hearing. Let's face it, Dr Patel is never going to work here or anywhere else again," Ms Crosby said.

Judge O'Brien will make a decision after receiving written submissions from the Medical Board, which does not oppose the secrecy application, and the Attorney-General.

The Medical Board was accused by Dr Patel's former lawyer Damian Scattini of "grandstanding" for pushing forward with its proceedings, which are trivial compared with the alleged criminality.

However, board chairwoman Mary Cohn said the board "understands it is the criminal matter that is uppermost to many people". "Our legal advice is that disciplinary charges of 'unsatisfactory professional conduct' against Patel do not legally impede actions by police, the DPP or other jurisdictions," she said.

Hedley Thomas is the author of Sick To Death, a newly released book about Dr Jayant Patel and how he thrived in a sick health and political system.

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