Solicitors who drew up 'gagging clauses' for ambulance service whistleblowers warned by regulator over 'error of judgement'

Paul Calvert raised whistleblowing concerns about North East Ambulance Service with the CQC
-Credit: (Image: NEAS / Newcastle Chronicle)

The solicitors at Ward Hadaway in Newcastle who drew up an non-disclosure agreement which could have prevented whistleblowers exposing concerns about North East Ambulance Service have been given an official warning by a regulator.

Two solicitors at the firm have been investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority over a so-called "gagging clause" in agreements which were presented to two whistleblowers including Paul Calvert who had sought to expose failings at NEAS. They have now been given official warnings - though the SRA found they "had not breached their professional obligations".

The whistleblowers had attempted to raise issues related to cases where the ambulance service either did not inform coroners about investigations into deaths, or altered documentation before submitting it to coroners. NEAS accepted "historical failings" in 2022 and an NHS England commissioned report by Dame Marianne Griffiths found "leadership dysfunction" led to the issues - which critics and the families involved alleged amounted to "cover-ups".

Following Dame Marianne's review, Helen Ray - the NEAS chief executive - accepted "grave errors" had been made. Since then, the ambulance service has been working to implement a series of improvement recommendations and work with the families involved.

Dame Marianne herself came under fire as the hospital trust she used to lead in the south of England faced pressure for treatment of whistleblowers, too.

The death of Quinn Evie Milburn-Beadle in December 2018 in Shildon is one of the cases whistleblowers like Paul brought to wider attention. She was just 17 when she died.

More than four years on in 2023, the first paramedic on the scene of her death was struck off. Gavin Wood had failed to follow guidelines and provide appropriate care. However - despite there being an internal investigation into what happened - the fact of this investigation was not initially disclosed ahead of an inquest.

An investigation report was initially altered "in direct contrast" to what had previously been written. Similar issues were identified in internal and externally-commissioned reports in the cases which saw Peter Coates, Andrew Edward Watson and Sandra Currington die. The concern in each was around what was disclosed to coroners - and if this was done in a timely fashion.

Whistleblower Paul has spoken of being "continually victimised" for speaking up about concerns. He and another man were offered settlements which included a clause about which the SRA has now found the wording "attempts to deter or impede the claimants from pursuing protected disclosures".

However, the SRA said it had found this was a decision not made on purpose. The investigation found that the solicitors in question had "made an error of judgement" when it came to the wording, but had not breached their professional obligations. They have been asked to "exercise caution in future" when drafting clauses. The warning will remain on the record of the solicitors in question.

A spokesperson for Ward Hadaway said: ""The SRA recently investigated certain concerns in relation to a piece of work carried out for NEAS. The firm and its lawyers cooperated fully with the SRA in this regard. The SRA made no findings of breach of professional obligation against the firm or its lawyers, and has drawn this matter to a close."

The whistleblowers are understood to have sought to appeal this judgement. NEAS has not commented on this issue.

Campaigners close to the whistleblowers said they believed that had Paul Calvert signed the non-disclosure agreement, it would not have been possible to share the information that led to NEAS' failings being exposed.