Problems with the principal-associate partnership

is the principal-associate partnership breaking down?The coronavirus crisis and a recent court judgement is causing major problems with the principal-associate partnership, Alun Rees says.

The old joke used to be that associates worked less but earned more than their principals. ‘Breezes in at 8:55, leaves at 5:25, and no idea about the business’ were the mutterings from practice owners. I am not sure that was ever the truth, the grass is always greener and we often reflect this through envy.

The effect of COVID-19 on dental businesses promises to be profound. The self-employed, without true ‘skin in the game‘, will have to take some of the fallout.

The easiest members of the team to suspend from duties are those without traditional contract of employment protection.

Principal-associate partnership

More worrying in the longer term is the determination in the County Court in Leeds on 28 January 2020. The court found that, not only did the treating dentist owe a non-delegable patient a duty of care, but so did the owner of the practice who was also vicariously liable for any negligent treatment provided by the treating dentist.

The treatment took place in September 2014 and the patient was not a regular of the associate or the practice. The deliberation will come as a surprise to many.

Traditionally self-employed associates have their own professional indemnity insurance. They generally get treated as liable for any problems with complaints about clinical matters.

This ruling suggests that a dental practice owes a duty of care to an NHS patient (which it cannot delegate or outsource) and is able for the associate’s negligence.

In this case the associate’s whereabouts were unknown. Because the associate didn’t notify the indemnifier, they (the indemnifier) declined cover. The judge explicitly ruled that this was not a relevant consideration in her determination.

I feel this judgement will be yet another thing to reduce the sleep of principals. And also potentially to muddy the principal-associate waters.