Staff can sue practices over sexual harassment

GPs are being warned that they could face legal action if they ignore the sexual harassment of staff by patients, following a landmark High Court ruling.

The government has been ordered by the High Court to alter existing equality laws to ensure that all employees are properly protected against sexual harassment by the public, as well as colleagues.

The ruling, made after a legal challenge brought by the Equal Opportunities Commission, would leave all employers, including GPs, liable to legal action if they ignore reports from staff of continuing sexual harassment from the public.

Martin Edwards, head of employment law at north west of England based solicitors Mace and Jones, said: ‘This is something that affects any workplace where staff deal with the public, including those that deal with patients such as GP surgeries and hospitals.’

Among key advice he has for GPs is to ensure robust procedures are in place to deal with such incidents when they occur.

‘For a GP this could mean looking at the possibility of removing a patient from the list or ensuring they are kept away from staff who have reported the incident,’ he said.

‘As far as this area is concerned, prevention is the key.’

The High Court decision is the latest recent legal ruling surrounding equality to affect GPs. From today the Equality Act 2006 comes into force. This puts a requirement on GPs and primary care organisations across the UK to provide equal services for men and women.

Among improvements practices are being advised to make are to ensure surgery hours are convenient for men and women and that smoking-cessation and weight-loss programmes are aimed at both sexes.

Key tips

Addressing sexual harassment of staff by patients: 

  • Update waiting room posters to include sexual harassment as conduct that will not be tolerated.
  • Ensure staff handbooks clearly show procedures to follow in the event of an incident of sexual harassment.
  • Adhere to statutory procedures when incidents occur, such as giving staff a formal hearing.

Source: Mace and Jones

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