The ruling allowing the public naming of four health workers in a fatal meningococcal case may have a "chilling effect" on reporting mistakes and undermine the safety of patients, says a health law professor.

"It's a tick for transparency and open justice, it raises a question mark for accountability ... and it has the potential to slow our progress in quality improvement and patient safety," Professor Ron Paterson, the former health and disability commissioner, said of Justice Christian Whata's High Court ruling.

A coroner had issued suppression orders, fearing that public naming of the four who cared for the late Zachary Gravatt would unfairly punish them when fault lay with the health system.

Justice Whata said that in a case where the coroner's findings did not unfairly criticise any of the individuals, justice was best served by affirming freedom of expression.


Professor Paterson said that while registered health practitioners found guilty of serious wrongdoing were typically named, Justice Whata's decision created the odd situation in which those with nothing to be held to account for were named, while others who might have fallen short would not be named under current practice.

"There is plenty of evidence internationally that if health practitioners fear that as a result of reporting incidents and taking part in incident reviews they will end up in some way being criticised and named, in other words named, blamed and shamed ... people will be less likely to participate in those processes."

Asked how that could apply in the present case, in which no blame was laid on the individuals, he said the staff concerned were likely to interpret seeing their names in the newspaper as an implicit criticism and the public would read it the same way.