A judge has criticised the General Medical Council (GMC) for an “abject failure of scrutiny” after a bogus psychiatrist who submitted “clearly false documents” was able to practise for more than 20 years.
Zholia Alemi was jailed for seven years at Manchester Crown Court on Tuesday for 20 fraud offences.
She claimed to have qualified at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, but earlier this month a jury found her guilty of forging the degree certificate and letter of verification she used to register with the GMC in 1995.
Sentencing her on Tuesday, Judge Hilary Manley said the offences “strike so very deeply at the heart of healthcare provisions in this country”.
She added: “That the degree certificate and supporting letter were accepted by the GMC represents an abject failure of scrutiny.
“You benefited from that failure and of course from your own deliberate and calculated dishonesty.”
The judge raised concerns about evidence from a GMC representative during the trial in which the court was told there was a high level of scrutiny of documents.
She said the court was “troubled” by the apparent contradiction over a statement from the GMC which said documents in the 1990s were not subject to the “rigorous scrutiny” now in place.
The judge called for the GMC to conduct a “thorough, open, transparent” inquiry into how the defendant was able to submit “such clearly false documents” and why it took a journalist rather than a professional governing body to uncover the truth.
Judge Manley said Alemi, who was able to detain patients against their will and prescribe powerful drugs, moved around the country to different posts to ensure “the finger of suspicion” did not point at her.
Christopher Stables KC, prosecuting, said Alemi was born in Iran but in the early 1990s was in Auckland, where she failed to complete the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery degree required to practise as a doctor and was refused permission to resit.
Those forged documents were used by the defendant and sent to the GMC in the UK in support of her application for registration as a doctor— Christopher Stables KC, prosecuting
In 1995, she was in the UK where she forged a degree certificate and letter of verification, he said.
Mr Stables said: “Those forged documents were used by the defendant and sent to the GMC in the UK in support of her application for registration as a doctor.”
The court heard she was registered and worked “more or less continuously” for both NHS trusts and private providers across the UK in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, earning an estimated £1.3 million.
Mr Stables, who described Alemi as an “accomplished forger”, said it was unclear how old Alemi was as documents had three different dates of birth for her, ranging from 55 to 60.
The court heard she was convicted at Carlisle Crown Court in 2018 for three fraud offences and a count of theft after trying to forge the will and powers of attorney of an elderly patient.
Following her conviction, journalist Phil Coleman, chief reporter for Cumbrian Newspapers, made inquiries into Alemi’s background and found she had never completed her qualification, the court was told.
Mr Stables said court proceedings had “come about as a direct result of the persistence of Mr Coleman’s investigative journalism”.
Alemi was told by the judge to stop raising her hand to attract her barristers’ attention during the sentencing hearing.
Francis Fitzgibbons KC, defending, said: “Prison for someone with her characteristics is particularly onerous.”
Alemi, of Plumbe Street in Burnley, was convicted of 13 counts of fraud, three counts of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception, two counts of forgery and two counts of using a false instrument after a four-week trial.
Una Lane, director of registration and revalidation at the GMC, said: “We are very sorry that Zholia Alemi was able to join our medical register in the 1990s, based on fraudulent documentation, and for any risk arising to patients as a result.
“Our processes are far stronger now, with rigorous testing in place to make sure those joining the register are fit to work in the UK.
“It is clear that in this case the steps taken almost three decades ago were inadequate. We are confident that, 27 years on, our systems are robust.
“Patients deserve good care from appropriately qualified professionals and place a great deal of trust in doctors. To exploit that trust and the respected name of the profession is abhorrent.”