Objective: To determine how familiar human research ethics committees (HRECs) are with the principles of natural justice and whether they apply these principles.
Design and setting: A postal survey conducted between April and September 2002 of the Chairs of all HRECs registered with the Australian Health Ethics Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in 2001.
Main outcome measures: HRECs’ reported familiarity with, and application of, three principles of natural justice: (1) the hearing rule, requiring a decision maker to allow a person affected by a decision to present his or her case; (2) the rule against bias, requiring a decision maker to be unbiased in the matter to be decided; and (3) the evidence rule, requiring that a decision be based on the evidence provided, and not irrelevant issues.
Results: From 201 Chairs of HRECs Australia-wide, we received 110 completed questionnaires (55% response rate). About 33% of respondents were very familiar with the principles of natural justice, and 25% completely unfamiliar. Most respondents felt that natural justice should be, and usually is, applied by HRECs. In cases of possible positive bias of an HREC member towards a research proposal, 70% of respondents said they would exclude the member from decision making. In cases of possible negative bias, 43% said they would exclude the HREC member.
Conclusion: The degree of familiarity with principles of natural justice varies widely among Chairs of HRECs. While many respondents felt that HRECs usually apply natural justice, responses to questions about bias suggest that HRECs do not always exclude members with possible bias, contrary to NHMRC guidelines.
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