The General Medical Council will be able to challenge ‘lenient’ decisions against doctors suspected of misconduct for the first time.

The medical watchdog has been granted new legal powers by Parliament which allow it to appeal tribunal decisions to the High Court where it disagrees with the conclusions of the independent Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service.

The service carries out fitness to practise panel hearings into the conduct of doctors and will become a statutory body independent of the GMC as part of the changes to the Medical Act 1983.

The right of appeal to the High Court will enable the GMC to take action in cases where it believes the MPTS has been “too lenient” or that its decision does not protect the public – which is the one of the main purposes of the GMC.

Other changes to the act include allowing the MPTS to award costs either against the GMC or the doctor if either side has behaved “unreasonably” or not complied with instructions given by the MPTS panel.

Other changes include streamlining how cases are handled and enabling legally qualified chairs to sit on some panels.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said the changes would “reinforce our role as a patient safety organisation”, adding they would “also help us streamline our investigations, reduce the time it takes to deal with complaints and make our procedures faster, fairer and more efficient”.

However, he added that further reform was still needed.

“The law that governs the regulation of healthcare professionals is outdated and change is overdue,” Mr Dickson said. “The draft [Regulation of Health and Social Care Professionals] Bill produced by the Law Commission would allow us to be more responsive and better serve the needs of patients and support improvements in medical practice. We hope this change in the law will be introduced as soon as possible after the general election.”

Judge David Pearl, chair of the MPTS, added: “This is the next step in creating a modern and efficient tribunal service for the medical profession, operationally separate from the GMC’s role in investigating complaints.”

Calls for wider reform of health professionals’ regulation, including changes to the Nursing and Midwifery Council rules, have been growing but the government did not include the measure in the Queen’s speech.

Harry Cayton, chief executive of the Professional Standards Authority, which oversees the GMC, said: “The authority will monitor the GMC’s use of its new power very closely to ensure it is acting in the best interest of the public and we won’t hesitate to intervene if it appears it is not doing so.”

Peter Walsh, chief executive of the Action Against Medical Accidents charity, said he welcomed the changes as a potential “safeguard” but added: “We have been arguing for a safeguard in the sense of a patient or member of the public being able to seek a review of a decision not to investigate.

“The risk of the GMC getting it wrong is far higher at the beginning of the process than once an investigation has taken place.”

The GMC has launched a consultation on the new rules, running until May, and it is expected the changes will come into effect in December.