Legal qualifications for doctors: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Authors: James Gray, Deveral Capps 

Publication date:  06 May 2006

James Gray and Deveral Capps of Northumbria University explain why it's never too late to study law

At the BMJ Careers Fair held in December 2005, the Northumbria University Law School team was overwhelmed by questions from doctors about qualifications in law. This is almost certainly a reflection of increasing legal intervention in health care and a desire to learn more about the legal issues involved. This interest reflects a growing realisation among medical practitioners of the increasing complexity of the medicolegal interface. Related qualifications can be relevant at all levels of seniority.

Universities have been quick to respond. Many now offer a range of full or part time postgraduate law programmes that are attractive to medics. For example, Cardiff University and Manchester University have established good reputations in medicolegal research and offer LLM (Master of Laws) programmes in legal aspects of medical practice and healthcare ethics and law. Other universities offering attendance based LLMs include Liverpool, Nottingham Trent University, and Kent.

Armchair education

Increasingly, courses are being offered on a distance learning basis, enabling professionals to study outside of working hours without the geographic constraints of attendance. De Montfort, Edinburgh University, Glasgow, and Salford University have all developed distance learning masters degree courses in medical and health law.


Northumbria University is currently one of the largest providers of distance learning medicolegal postgraduate qualifications in the country, with LLM programmes in medical law, mental health law, claims and risk management, and child law. All of these are masters degree programmes and are offered through a combination of supported distance learning and non-compulsoryweekend study days. All of them take two years to complete and no legal knowledge is required. They are also available as postgraduate diplomas, completed in 18 months, and the last two as postgraduate certificates requiring 12 months.

Northumbria's programmes are accredited for continuing professional development by various bodies including the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the Senate of Surgery of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Successful students

We approached three former Northumbria students to ask their views, in particular, on the appropriate career stage for study, what qualities are needed to study law at masters level, and the effect that gaining the qualification has had on their work.

Helen Bond is a consultant psychiatrist at Surrey and Borders Partnership Trust and graduated in 2001 from Northumbria with an LLM in mental health law. “I really enjoyed the LLM course,” she says, “but it took more time than I had initially anticipated. I feel very strongly that most psychiatric trainees are not taught properly about the Mental Health Act and as a result many consultant psychiatrists are unaware of important aspects of the law in this area, a potential risk for a trust. I must confess as a new consultant, I was unaware that a Mental Health Review Tribunal was a court.”

See you in court

One of the things Helen found most valuable was, “an opportunity to mix with lawyers whose attitude to the act is so different from most psychiatrists. As a result, for me, the balance between medical paternalism and respect for the patient's autonomy has altered markedly,” she continues, “I now have much more confidence in using the act and actually enjoy attending manager's hearings and tribunals. I keep up to date with case law in relation to the act and spend a lot of time when supervising my juniors dealing with different aspects of the act. I sit on a group monitoring the use of the act in my trust.”

Helen feels the best time to do the LLM is probably after MRCPsych (Membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists), or a couple of years after being appointed as a consultant. “I can't think of any disadvantages provided one is able to make the time commitment,” she says, “ I found the course to be very well organised, the study materials excellent, and the supervision first class. The opportunity to stop at the diploma stage can make proceeding to the LLM less daunting.”

Excellent evidence

Tim Exworthy is a consultant forensic psychiatrist at Redford Lodge Hospital, London. He graduated from Northumbria in 2004 with an LLM in mental health law, “The LLM is outside regular training requirements for a psychiatric career but is excellent evidence of pursuing an area of special interest to a high level. I now have a greater understanding and confidence about the process and can adjust reports and evidence to match. Apart from specialist knowledge of relevant law, study also brings intellectual stimulation and a greater understanding of the interface between psychiatry and law. All of this requires a large investment in time and money unless you are sponsored by your employer.”

The third degree

“Commitment is very important,” says Tim, “given the time and workload involved. An ability to absorb and analyse a large volume of information, to collate disparate sources, and produce a coherent synthesis and critical evaluation are all required, but are developed through studying the degree. A reasonable degree of IT literacy is also required.” He suggests pursuing the LLM as a specialist registrar or consultant because at this stage doctors have enough practical experience to draw on and can put into practice what has been learnt, for example, in Mental Health Review Tribunals.

“The assessments are searching examinations of one's understanding of the topic and should not be underestimated,” says Tim. “The work books and copies of judgments are valuable guides but need to be supplemented by additional research and reading,” he continues. Tim found it useful to draw on non-legal sources such as medical research, and government department websites. He also attended as many study days as he could and found the time he invested was, “amply repaid by gaining an early understanding of the breadth of the particular module.”

Tempted to take the law (school) into your own hands?

It is worth noting that these medicolegal programmes do not all start in September; some, for example, begin in February. For further information on postgraduate legal qualifications, a useful website is [Link] where links to all of the universities and courses discussed in this article can be found. ■

James Gray senior lecturer
Deveral Capps principal lecturer School of Law, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: