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Disciplinary investigations against architects #3 – The review stage

24 February 2020. Published by Sarah O'Callaghan, Associate and Emma Wherry, Associate

Further to our previous two articles which provided (1) an overview of the Architect Registration Board's disciplinary process and (2) a review of the complaints stage we explain the next stage of a disciplinary investigation against an Architect, the review stage.

Once the ARB has sufficient information to understand the complaint it will consider whether it meets the "standard of acceptance". This is important as investigating a complaint is a time-consuming and expensive process for the ARB. The 2018 Annual Report reveals an expenditure of around £680,000 in relation to regulation and professional standards. It is therefore important that its resources are used appropriately to investigate matters which may present a risk to the public. As confirmed in the ARB's 2018 Annual Report just under 28% of complaints were referred for formal investigation, a significant reduction on the previous year where around 41% of complaints were referred to the Investigations Panel despite fewer complaints being received. 

At this stage the ARB will consider the complaint to see if it raises serious concerns about an Architect's conduct or competence - i.e. whether there may be questions of unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence to be considered. These are the only two offences that the ARB has the power to investigate under the Architects Act 1997 (save for allegations regarding misuse of title which we do not consider in this series). 

The ARB does not investigate or get involved in disputes about contracts or fee levels or decide whether or not an Architect has been negligent. If the ARB does not think that the complaint is one which falls within the scope of their powers, the process ends here.

The first stage of the standard of acceptance is whether or not the information provided allows the ARB to identify the Architect against whom the complaint is being made. 

At the second stage, the ARB will make a preliminary decision regarding the credibility of the evidence.  The ARB does not need to be satisfied that the evidence is true, rather than it would cause "a reasonable person to consider that it is worth of belief". This is a much lower barrier, which in our experience allows a number of vexatious complaints to proceed to the investigations stage. 

If the ARB is satisfied that either the complaint as a whole, or elements of the complaint, meet the standard of acceptance, then it will draft formal allegations. These allegations will only consider the elements of the complaint that the ARB considers meet the standard of acceptance – and there may be elements of a complaint which are not pursued. 

It is important for both complainants and Architects to understand that the ARB's role is not one of an adjudicator.  It has a statutory duty to investigate potential professional misconduct and is not there to resolve disputes between parties.  In its guidance the ARB emphasises that a complainant is not a party to the proceedings but may be called upon to give witness evidence on behalf of the ARB. 

Once the allegations have been drafted by the ARB then a letter will be sent to an Architect notifying them that a complaint has been made and inviting them to provide a response. We discuss this in our next article regarding the Investigations Stage. 

It is important for Architects to be aware that this stage of the process remains confidential. The ARB only makes a complaint public if it reaches a Professional Conduct Committee hearing.

Please look out for our next articles which discusses the Investigations Panel process.  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 one of the RPC construction team.