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The RCVS concerns and investigation process explained

How does the RCVS investigate complaints raised about the professional conduct of veterinary surgeons?

17 August 2020, at 11:00am

As the regulator of UK veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, the RCVS is responsible for investigating complaints raised about the professional conduct of individual veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses. We understand that, for members of the profession about whom a complaint has been raised, this can be a very daunting and stressful situation.

Here Gemma Crossley, Head of Professional Conduct at the RCVS, explains more about the process which, while robust and thorough, is also fair and takes into account the strain that professionals can find themselves under while being investigated.

Investigating complaints

Following the publication of an article in the July issue of Veterinary Practice that contained some unclear information regarding the RCVS concerns investigation and disciplinary processes, we wanted to take the opportunity to explain in a little more depth how it works for those subject to a complaint and what you should do if a complaint is made about you.

We have a legal responsibility to investigate all concerns raised with us regarding veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses on our Register but we also recognise this can be an extremely worrying time for those being investigated.

It is worth adding here what we can and cannot deal with as a regulator. Concerns that involve disputes over costs or customer service issues would generally be directed to the Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS), an independent body funded by the RCVS that seeks to resolve matters that are in dispute. The role of the RCVS is to investigate allegations of serious professional misconduct affecting fitness to practise. This includes allegations of dishonesty or false certification, or significant departures from the standards expected of a reasonable veterinary surgeon/nurse.

Stage one

If we are investigating a concern raised about you, we will assign a case manager to you who will be your personal point of contact at the College until your case is concluded and who will be responsible for coordinating the investigation.

The first stage of the investigation is carried out by a case examiner group comprising your case manager and two case examiners. The job of the case examiner group is to determine whether there is an arguable case that the matter could amount to serious professional misconduct. At this stage, you may be asked to provide your written comments on the concerns raised, or to produce documentation and other evidence, such as clinical notes and communications with a client, where applicable. If you are unsure what or how much information to provide, you should consult your assigned case manager, as well as your professional indemnity insurer, for additional advice. We will also provide you with details of support services available to veterinary surgeons and nurses.

The majority of cases are closed at this first stage and, if this happens, your case manager will write to you explaining why. If the case examiner group felt that there was not an arguable case of serious professional misconduct, but that you had fallen short of the standards expected, it may issue advice to you (generally a reminder of relevant parts of the Code of Conduct or Supporting Guidance).

If it is considered that there is an arguable case of serious professional misconduct, the complaint will be passed on to the Preliminary Investigation Committee (PIC).

We aim to complete stage one of the process within four months of receiving the concerns.

Stage two

The PIC is a statutory committee, comprising both veterinary and lay members, that is tasked with undertaking further investigations and scrutiny of cases. The committee meets every two weeks or so to discuss cases and, amongst its powers, has the ability to seek further information and evidence from you, complainants and witnesses, including by instructing external solicitors.

After considering all the evidence, the PIC will decide whether to close the case (with or without advice), or, if it considers that there is a realistic prospect of proving that your behaviour amounts to serious professional misconduct, it may be passed to the Disciplinary Committee for a full public hearing. Cases may also be held open for up to two years if it is considered that there is a realistic prospect, but that it is not in the public interest to refer the matter. In some circumstances, the PIC may consider it appropriate to place registrants on a health or performance protocol, if they consent to such.

We aim to complete cases at stage two within seven months from the date of receiving the concerns (or 12 months for complex cases).

Disciplinary Committee

The Disciplinary Committee meets in public in a setting similar to that of the courtroom environment.

As an independent committee, the DC comprises both lay and veterinary members recruited and appointed by an outside agency. Its purpose during the hearing is three-fold: first, to determine if the facts of the case can be proven (the standard of proof, “to be sure”, is tantamount to the criminal standard, “beyond reasonable doubt”); second, where the facts of the case are proven, it determines whether these amount to serious professional misconduct; and, third, where serious professional misconduct is found, it determines what sanction to apply.

As opposed to what was stated in the previous article, the DC has no powers to impose any conditions on a veterinary surgeon’s or veterinary nurse’s licence to practise. The options open are relatively limited: the DC can close the case with no further action; hold the case open for up to two years (with or without the health or performance protocols); issue a formal reprimand; suspend your name from the Register for a period of up to two years; or remove your name from the Register.

In the case of the latter two sanctions, there is an appeal process to the Privy Council with appeals needing to be made within 28 days of you being notified of the DC’s decision. For those removed from the Register, there is also a restoration process and applications for restoration can be made within 10 months of being removed from the Register.

Looking ahead

I hope that this brief overview provides a clearer picture of how the RCVS investigations and disciplinary process works. It is worth noting that relatively few cases escalate to the Disciplinary Committee which is generally reserved for the most serious breaches of the Code.

The aim of the process is not to punish registrants, but to seek to ensure the protection of animal health and welfare and public health, and to maintain and uphold standards.

Looking ahead, RCVS Council recently voted to consult on possible changes to our disciplinary system that would bring it more into line with modern regulatory best practice, whilst maintaining public protection at its heart.

You can find full details of the process at rcvs.org.uk/concerns or email profcon@rcvs.org.uk for further information. Information about recent proposals for changes to the disciplinary system can be found at rcvs.org.uk/disciplinaryreform