HealthCare Quality: Should “Willful Neglect” Be a Criminal Offense?

Karen Yeung Professor of Law Centre for Technology, Ethics Law & Society King's College London London WC2R Interview with:
Karen Yeung
Professor of Law
Centre for Technology, Ethics Law & Society
King’s College London
London WC2R 2LS What are the main findings of the study?

Professor Yeung: This study found a gap in existing legal regulation of healthcare quality in the UK.  While patients receiving treatment under mental health legislation are protected by the criminal law against wilful neglect or ill treatment, other patients are not subject to the same level of protection, although many such patients are just as vulnerable as those who are mentally incapacitated.  Hence we argue that a new criminal offence of ‘wilful neglect or ill treatment’ of patients in the healthcare sector is needed. Were any of the findings unexpected?

Professor Yeung: Patients may well be surprised that such a gap in the law exists, although gaps of these nature do sometimes occur in the legal protection provided in different policy sectors. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Professor Yeung: Although we support the introduction of a new criminal offence of ‘willful neglect’, this offence would only apply to conduct that is committed intentionally, recklessly or with a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude.  Hence it would not criminalise understandable or momentary errors or lapses, but would include behaviours such as persistent verbal abuse, or discharging patients before they are well enough. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

​Professor Yeung: We recommend that further consideration be given to the formulation and introduction of a new criminal offence along the lines that we suggest.  We therefore welcome the UK Department of Health’s current consultation process into a new offence of ill-treatment or wilful neglect.


How can the criminal law support the provision of quality in healthcare?

Karen Yeung, Jeremy Horder

BMJ Qual Saf bmjqs-2013-002688Published Online First: 5 March 2014 doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2013-002688

Last Updated on March 6, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD