Brownlie v Four Seasons Group
Dr Freeman, who was previously the chief doctor at both British Cycling and Team Sky has been found to have ordered testosterone patches “knowing or believing” they were for the purpose of improving athletic performance. In light of their findings, a Panel of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) held that Dr Freeman’s fitness to practise was impaired, and ordered that his name be erased from the General Medical Council (GMC) register.
The decision is a major blow for British Cycling, one of the most successful and well-funded governing bodies in British sport. Whilst the GMC case may have concluded, Dr Freeman will face further investigation from UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) into his misconduct.
The case has been ongoing since November 2019 after Dr Freeman, who was employed by British Cycling and Team Sky between 2009 and 2015, was accused by the GMC of ordering 30 sachets of Testogel, a banned substance, “knowing or believing” it was intended to improve an athlete’s performance, which is prohibited.
At the outset of the hearing before the MPTS, Dr Freeman admitted 18 of 22 charges against him, including initially lying to try to cover up the order and misleading a UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) investigation. The remaining charges, which were denied, included an allegation that he helped to dope a rider.
In his evidence Dr Freeman told the Tribunal that he had secretly taken the package of Testogel home on the night it was delivered to the National Cycling Centre, and had washed it down the sink. He also insisted that the subject of doping had never arisen as he was unaware of testosterone’s performance-enhancing benefits. Dr Freeman claimed that he was bullied into buying the patches by Team Sky’s performance director, Shane Sutton, to treat his erectile dysfunction.
The Panel found Dr Freeman guilty of ordering the testosterone patches with the knowledge “it was to be administered to an athlete to improve their athletic performance". The Panel rejected Dr Freeman’s explanation, finding that his conduct was “incapable of innocent explanation”. It ruled that his motive to explain the order by claiming he was bullied into ordering the drug by Mr Sutton was to “conceal his conduct”. The Tribunal stated:
“Upon its arrival he was dishonest about why it had been sent, removed it from the velodrome, and it was never seen again. The tribunal found that Dr Freeman has been dishonest in its regard ever since.”
The Tribunal concluded that “public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment (of fitness to practise) were not made”. Imposing the most serious sanction available, the Panel stated that Dr Freeman’s misconduct “constituted behaviour unbefitting and incompatible with that of a registered doctor”.
Dr Freeman had 28 days in which to appeal the decision pursuant to section 40 of the Medical Act 1983. As of the date of this blog, it is unknown whether an appeal has been lodged.
Although the proceedings brought by the GMC have concluded, there will be further investigations into the circumstances surrounding Dr Freeman’s conduct. On 12 March 2021, UKAD released a statement confirming that Dr Freeman has been charged under the Anti-Doping Rules with two violations relating to possession of prohibited substances and tampering with doping control.
British Cycling, who co-referred Dr Freeman’s case to the GMC, has released a statement confirming that they have made substantial changes to the way that they provide medical treatment to riders, including acquiring Care Quality Commission (CQC) status, the formation of a new Clinical Governance Committee and the implementation of a new Code of Conduct for all medical and performance support staff. They have confirmed that they will leave all further investigation into the circumstances surrounding the delivery of the Testogel to UKAD, who has their full support.
This case is a clear example of co-existence/working between regulators and the issues which can arise for practitioners that are subject to more than one regulatory regime. Whilst it is not said that Dr Freeman’s actions caused harm to any riders, the decision was made on a public interest basis. As stated by Sir Thomas Bingham in Bolton v Law Society  1 WLR 512 with regard to the public interest and upholding public confidence in regulated individuals: “……..The reputation of the profession is more important than the fortunes of any individual member. Membership of a profession brings many benefits, but that is a part of the price”.
Shannett Thompson is a Partner in the Regulatory Team having trained in the NHS and commenced her career exclusively defending doctors. She provides regulatory advice predominantly in the health and social care and education sectors. Shannett has vast experience advising regulated individuals, businesses such as clinics and care homes and students in respect of disciplinary investigations. She is a member of the private prosecutions team providing advice to individuals, business and charities in respect of prosecutions were traditional agencies are unwilling or unable to act. In addition Shannett has built up a significant niche in advising investors and businesses in the cannabis sector.
Claire Parry is an Associate Barrister in the Regulatory team. She specialises in advising individuals on safeguarding, disciplinary and anti-doping investigations as well as investigating fitness to practise concerns on behalf of regulators.
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