Doctors lose deep sleep defamation case

Two doctors involved in the notorious Chelmsford deep sleep therapy have lost a defamation case.
Two doctors involved in the notorious Chelmsford deep sleep therapy have lost a defamation case.

Two doctors from the notorious Chelmsford Private Hospital where some patients underwent "deep sleep therapy" to the point of death have had their defamation case against a book publisher thrown out in the Federal Court.

Dr John Gill and former Dr John Herron mounted the case against HarperCollins following its publication of Steve Cannane's 2016 book Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia.

One chapter in particular referenced the exhaustive two-year royal commission by Acting Justice John Slattery into "so-called deep sleep therapy", and electroconvulsive therapy, and the role Scientology played in exposing the abuse at the Sydney hospital, part-owned by Dr Gill.

A number of defamatory claims Mr Herron argued against the publisher included his gross negligence in almost killing a patient who was falsely imprisoned, sedated, and given ECT therapy without consent.

The case involved the transformation of a "fit 37-year-old in peak physical condition, to a person in agony and distress, vomiting blood and unable to move his limbs".

Both made claims regarding the use of DST despite trials by other doctors deeming the practice too dangerous, among other accusations.

But Justice Jayne Jagot dismissed the case and ordered costs to be paid by the former Chelmsford practitioners who sought to prove the royal commission gave a "Scientology version of events," and used the current proceedings to "rewrite history and vindicate their conduct" despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she said.

She said a defence of "justification", and "qualified privilege for the publication of defamatory matter," were entitled in this case.

The Royal Commission into Mental Health Services found the administering of DST by four doctors at Chelsmford in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr Gill and Mr Herron included, was "unethical, grossly negligent and involved sustained medical malpractice".

DST involved dosing patients with barbiturates to a state of deep unconsciousness where they were forced-fed by a nasogastric tube and frequently left incontinent.

Without doctors' supervision nurses were tasked with deciding when and how much of the drugs to be administered.

No fewer than 23 deaths were caused at Chelmsford with DST being the material contributor, Justice Jagot said.

Dr Gill and Mr Herron "plainly believed that they had been the victims of a serious injustice wrought upon them," she said.

"Their entire approach to their conduct was self-justificatory and self-exculpatory."

The royal commission found both men dishonest, unreliable witnesses, who relied on no expert evidence but their own which was rejected in the "strongest possible terms".

"The idea that Mr Cannane was obliged to give the applicants another opportunity to present their dishonest and self-serving version of events, which had been so comprehensively rejected in the royal commission report, is untenable," Justice Jagot said.

Australian Associated Press