I’ve spent a long time thinking about how to tell this story. It’s a story that began almost a year ago and didn’t end until last month, and, actually, still hasn’t really ended, that I haven’t been able to talk about in public for reasons that will become clear, and that has been the cause of so much anxiety that I didn’t really know how anxious I was about it until I mostly wasn’t anymore.
In the November of last year, I bought my first car.
And ten days after it came home from the garage, there was an accident and it was no longer my car but a thing with an exploded radiator and a chassis bent beyond repair.
My overriding memory of the night it happened is of the world ending around about me. Have you ever been in a car that hit another car? It sounds like steel crashing into steel, glass shattering around about, all the horns in the city blaring all at once, and it adds up to a cacophony of noise that you wish you could forget but will never be able to. I’ve given this story a name that may sound hyperbolic, but sitting in a tiny Kia Picanto that would no longer start at ten o’clock at night with four lanes of traffic converging on me and then pushing it by myself out of the junction before I could be hit by anything else… well, the Hellmouth didn’t feel like an entirely inaccurate description of where I thought I was.
The short version of the events that happened in the moments leading up to it was that I had what I judged to be a clear path to turn right at a junction and, as I made the turn, a speeding car travelling in the opposite direction came upon me from nowhere with no time for my car to stop.
I think it is important to make it clear at this point that nobody was hurt. I ran over to the other car to find out if anyone was hurt, and I never thought the first time I would need to identify myself as a doctor at the scene of an accident would be an accident that I had been in the middle of.
The police arrived, having been called by folk in the nearby pub who had heard all the commotion. The wrong police. I’ve learned many things over the last ten months, and one of the first things I learned was that the line that divides Glasgow into East and West is the white line that runs down the middle of Glasgow High Street. The white line that runs down the middle of Glasgow High Street, which we had crashed on. The police from one division arrived on the scene and decided that there was more of my headlight glass on the wrong side of the line than there was on the right side of the line, and with that decision turned it into their colleagues’ problem. This was the first of many points at which I had to laugh a little bit or else I would have cried.
After the right police had come and statements had been given and my squished broken car had been loaded onto a flatbed truck and the wonderful friend who had been in the car in front had brought me tea, I, stood on the corner of the High Street in an inadequate coat in the dark in the middle of November, was charged with driving without due care and attention and read my Miranda rights. And, predictably, having held it together through giving statements and calling roadside assistance and talking to paramedics, I burst into embarrassingly messy tears as one of the police officers looked at me awkwardly and surmised that I had never been in any trouble with the police before. (I hadn’t, but having been through it once I can’t say that I can see myself reacting any better if it were to happen again.)
The first thing I learned, that night, shivering into my tea and mopping my nose with my coat sleeve like an overgrown six year old, is that being charged by the police in Scotland does not always translate into a prosecution. The procurator fiscal is the gatekeeper who considers the police charge and decides whether there is a case to be brought. The second thing I learned, the next morning, on the phone to my defence union, is that doctors are required to tell the GMC about any criminal charges, whether or not those charges have resulted in a conviction yet and even if those charges are only for a driving offence. The third thing I learned, very quickly, is that the GMC is based entirely in England and has even less idea of Scottish law than I do.
Everyone who heard that I had to report this to the GMC presumed that they wouldn’t care about a charge of careless driving. That even if I might have problems should that turn into a conviction of careless driving, and they thought even that was unlikely, they certainly wouldn’t do anything at that stage. It took me eleven hours to tell them what had happened. “When did you first learn about the charges?” Last night. “And the incident happened when?” Last night. I felt as if I ought to have been being held up as a sterling example of probity and transparency and other noble things.
It took them three days to open a Fitness to Practice investigation.
It is GMC policy not to formally investigate any wrongdoing which is also being investigated by the police until such a time as criminal proceedings have been completed. They just open a file and leave it sitting on a desk. The criminal proceedings in this case went on for so long that a Fitness to Practice file was open on me all the way through my F1 year and into the beginning of F2. I had a pending Fitness to Practice investigation when I applied for full registration in July – and, seeing that I had been told that I wasn’t being investigated at that stage, I didn’t expect there to be any reason for me to not get it, until I checked my phone one day at Gretna services and found an email from the GMC informing me that after a month’s deliberation, they had decided that I could have full registration pending the outcome of my case.
I had at that point been driving a car without crashing it for nine months.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In February, a guy knocked at the door on a morning when I was working a surgical receiving backshift and served me with papers regarding my case which was due to be heard in the Sheriff Court in April. Of course, I didn’t know then that that was only my pleading hearing and that I would be required to appear in court on many more occasions before it was all over, so I went off to court in April, the day before my birthday, expecting to be either convicted or not convicted there and then. I wasn’t. I pled not guilty, and I was told to leave court and to come back for trial in September and a thing called an Intermediate Diet that, again, nobody outside of Scotland had ever heard of, at the end of August.
The first thing I had to tell the person in charge of my SHO rota when I started work was that I needed two days off to go to court. There is something a little ridiculous about that.
In August, at my Intermediate Diet, I was called Mrs Routledge a lot and my case became the only one that day where the Crown asked for more time due to them having lost two of their witnesses. I argued nine months to find them and there being a patient safety element to my continually needing to take time off work. They agreed. They still called me Mrs Routledge (my larger objection was to the presumption of my marital status than the other thing, but I do object to the other thing mainly on the grounds that it evidently meant nobody was really listening when I said, “I have a full time job as a doctor at…”). But that was agreed.
And then around came the trial. I had been told by a lot of people that I was ridiculous for going without a lawyer, but the honest-to-goodness truth is that I earn too much money for Legal Aid and I have far too much debt to pay an actual lawyer. I knew that the maximum fine I was likely to be given if I were convicted was less than I was likely to have to pay in legal fees. I was trying not to think too hard about the points I would have on my license, the staggering amount by which my car insurance would go up, or the Fitness to Practice thing that was hanging over my head.
I’m going to take a brief moment here to say, I have had brilliant support during this whole thing from more people than I can count. It goes all the way from my then-Educational Supervisor who announced that she still trusted me to drive the notes trolley and then told me about the time she got done for dangerous driving, to the friend who stopped and came back for me that night and was there right to the very bitter end, to the colleague who will henceforth be referred to as The Gullible One who we convinced without trying very hard at all after my Intermediate Diet that I had a tracking device on until the trial and couldn’t go to the top floor of the hospital, to my mother who reacted with surprising equanimity when I woke her up at eleven o’clock at night going “OH MY GOD THE CAR IS IN BITS”, and, oh, how wonderful to have a church where when you tell people that you are up in court next week they aren’t shocked or horrified but instead respond by telling stories of Glasgow Courtrooms I Have Known.
In a trial for this kind of offence, all the people whose trial is on that day come at the same time and the people who have lawyers get to go first. It is an awful lot of sitting around, and, because I do live in the west of Scotland, an awful lot of sitting around in a damp suit. By the time they got to me, it felt like quite a long time since breakfast and then they adjourned for an indeterminate period of time before coming back and having the prosecution lawyer explain the process to me and my right to cross-examine any of the prosecution witnesses myself and that if he needed to refer to case law we would adjourn again so that I could read and familiarise myself with it. And then had all of this explained to me again by the judge. I nodded a lot and said, “Yes, your Honour,” a lot.
They called the first witness.
In the time since the Intermediate Diet, the two witnesses that they had lost had been found and one of them, the passenger from the other car, had agreed to attend court. She proceeded to get the time of the incident wrong by a significant margin and to inform court that the driver from the car involved was not in the courtroom. I was sitting in the dock. I would have thought that even if you aren’t absolutely sure, you could probably take a punt on the accused being the one sitting in the dock. I was psyching myself up to ask her some questions without crying and was taken considerably aback when she was told to leave before I had the opportunity to do so. I had, after all, been told not five minutes earlier that I had the right to do that. I wasn’t asked to give my account of events. No other witnesses were called.
The prosecution lawyer had a little conflab with the judge. The judge turned to me. “Yes, we find you not guilty. You are free to go.”
I almost asked if he was sure.
And then I left court and cried. A thing that I hadn’t done since the day I had been served with my papers.
I thought that that was going to be the end of the story. I thought that it was a happy ending. It was, but it turns out that it hasn’t actually ended yet. To my unpleasant surprise, there is still a Fitness to Practice file open on me and there is likely to be one open on me until some time past the time when I will be applying for a job in Core Medical Training. I found this out when two weeks after I had been acquitted by Glasgow Sheriff Court, I opened an email from the GMC requesting urgently any police documentation about the case because Glasgow Sheriff Court didn’t quite understand why they should release any documentation about a charge of which the accused had been found not guilty and frankly I can see their point. The following phone conversation sounded like something that ought to have come out of a Greek farce, when my contact told me that they realised that no Fitness to Practice concerns had been raised by any of the people they had contacted last year, and in fact that my employers and my ex-medical school had all spoken very highly of me, and they realised that this was a driving offence in which I had been accused neither of being drunk nor of acting as the getaway driver in a bank job, and they realised that in any case I had been found not guilty of said offence in a court of law, but that, despite all of these things, the case would still have to go to their case examiners and a decision made as to whether I ought to have restrictions brought against my medical practice. (“If you had assaulted someone and got off on a technicality, I might see where they were coming from,” said a colleague. “But it was a car crash.”) It shouldn’t affect my job application, they said. They weren’t quite sure what to say when I pointed out that it also shouldn’t have affected my application for full registration.
There are kudos for the medicolegal advisor at my defence union who took the call from me this week, when I only paused long enough to give my membership number before ranting loudly at him for several minutes with neither punctuation nor breathing.
And so the story that I thought was over isn’’t quite over.
I am told that the GMC business is a formality at this point and I’m inclined to believe that, but it is a formality that I expect them to spin out until God knows when. I won’t be terribly surprised if I end up in ten years at my first consultant interview having to explain why there is still an open investigation on my file.
Or, in the words of the consultant who still trusts me to drive the notes trolley, “They aren’t going to do anything. But they’re going to take a very long time to tell you that they aren’t going to do anything.”