Disciplinary investigations against architects #5 - Referral to Professional Conduct Committee
Further to our previous four articles detailing the stages of the Architect Registration Board's disciplinary process up to the Investigations Panel Stage, this article considers the steps that are taken by the ARB in order to refer the matter to the Professional Conduct Committee and the steps that an Architect may wish to take to prepare for that hearing.
The most important practical point is to for architects to be aware of the tight timescales that apply from receipt of a report from the ARB's solicitor, and to understand what they should do.
If the Investigations Panel concludes that the Architect may have breached the Code of Conduct and has a "case to answer" in respect of unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, the ARB will instruct its Board Solicitor to prepare a report referring the matter to the Professional Conduct Committee. This is, obviously, a worrying development for any architect.
The Board Solicitor's Report sets out the factual background to the matter, details the particulars of the charge – i.e. the specific actions that the ARB alleges amounts to SPI or UPC with references to the elements of the Code that it considers has been breached. It will usually exhibit copies of relevant documents and confirm what witness evidence the ARB intends to rely upon.
On receipt of the Board Solicitor's Report, the chair of the PCC will identify three members of the committee to hear that case. This will always include an Architect, for their technical expertise, and a lay member, so that there is an opinion from a member of the public. The ARB aims to list PCC hearings within 28 weeks from the conclusion of the Investigations Panel process.
The Board Solicitor's Report will be provided to the Architect not less than 49 days before the date of the hearing, with any supplemental documents such as witness statements being provided not less than 35 days before the hearing.
The timescales on receipt of a Board Solicitor's Report are tight. An Architect must confirm whether the charge is admitted or denied, along with brief particulars of their defence within 21 days of receiving the Report. Architects would therefore be well advised to seek legal advice at an early stage of the proceedings to ensure that they are in a position to respond within these timescales. As we have suggested previously, architects should also check if they have insurance in place that will cover the cost of this legal advice.
It may be necessary to undertake further investigations including identifying and interviewing witnesses, procuring expert evidence and to consider the impact of the proposed response on any ongoing or potential professional negligence claim before being in a position to formally respond to the charges.
An Architect has an opportunity to make further, more detailed, submissions in their defence which must be submitted no later than 21 days before the PCC hearing. These will often include a lengthier defence setting out the legal position in relation to the allegations and witness evidence. Given the potential ramifications for an Architect's career and business of an adverse decision by the PCC, it is important to present the best possible case.
Not all cases proceed to a full public hearing. As with other regulatory bodies, the ARB has looked to reduce its legal spend by introducing a way to resolve disciplinary proceedings by consent in the event that the charge is admitted in full. Although a total of 23 cases were referred to the PCC in 2018, 5 of these were resolved by consent without the need for a contested hearing. Whilst avoiding a hearing can appear attractive at first glance, if the consent order agreed between the ARB and the Architect is refused by the PCC (which does happen), the matter will still proceed to a full hearing. This has both time and cost implications that need to be carefully considered.
Please look out for our next article which discusses the Professional Conduct Committee hearing itself. If, in the meantime, you receive any indication of a complaint or notice that you may be subject to an investigation by the ARB, please do not hesitate to contact one of the RPC team.
Catch up on previous articles in the series: