At its November 2021 meeting, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) Council approved the implementation of a clearer and more streamlined process for how the College investigates concerns raised about the professional conduct of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, as well as an alternative, more compassionate way of resolving cases that might otherwise go to a full Disciplinary Committee hearing.
Council members had previously voted to approve the reforms in June 2021, and the decisions at this Council meeting, which took place on Thursday 11 November, were about their implementation in practice.
First, RCVS Council members approved the details about the establishment of ‘Stage 1 Preliminary Investigation Committees (PICs)’ to replace the current Case Examiner Group stage of the RCVS concerns investigation process.
Eleanor Ferguson, RCVS Registrar, explains the PIC reform in more detail: “Setting up Stage 1 PICs will streamline and clarify the early stages of the concerns investigation process and could also potentially, once sufficiently bedded in, reduce the amount of time taken for a number of cases.
“Currently, Stage 1 of a concerns investigation is carried out by a Case Examiner Group who determine if there is an ‘arguable case’ for serious professional misconduct before referring it on to the Preliminary Investigation Committee. However, under these reforms, the Stage 1 PICs will close cases where there is no realistic prospect of finding a case of serious professional misconduct. Where cases require formal statements and/or expert opinion they will be referred on to Stage 2 PIC to determine if, based on the additional evidence gathered, a case is serious enough to warrant referral to either the Charter Case Committee [see below], or a full, public Disciplinary Committee hearing.
“In essence this change means that there will be one consistent threshold of seriousness in all our investigations, meaning it is likely that fewer cases will be unnecessarily referred to Stage 2 of the process.”
Council members also approved the details and implementation of the new ‘Charter Case Protocol’. This provides an alternative way to resolve suitable cases meeting a detailed set of criteria which, though they meet the threshold to go to the Disciplinary Committee, it is considered that the public interest can still be served without a full hearing. The ‘Charter Case Committee’ to which these cases will be referred will be able to issue written warning notices.
Eleanor Ferguson added: “The establishment of the Charter Case Protocol and Committee is important for the RCVS in being able to get the balance right between upholding professional conduct standards and protecting animal health and welfare and public confidence in the professions, while also being a compassionate regulator.
“The type of cases we envisage being dealt with by the Committee are those where the conduct of the veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse has fallen far short of what is expected of them under the Code, but where there is no ongoing risk to animal welfare or public confidence, and where the level of insight and contrition about their conduct is such that it can be resolved without the need for an onerous, stressful and expensive Disciplinary Committee hearing. We estimate that the Charter Case Committee will deal with around 20 such cases per year.
“Of course, the most serious cases of professional misconduct, for example around dishonesty and criminality, will continue to be referred to Disciplinary Committee hearings.
“It is worth noting that Charter Case Protocol and Committee are working titles, describing the fact that we are implementing this process under the remit of our Royal Charter. RCVS Council has agreed that the name should be changed in due course to something that better reflects its function and remit.
“Finally, thank you to the members of RCVS Council for voting through these changes which, though they may seem very technical at first glance, will make a real difference to our concerns investigation and disciplinary procedures.”
Unlike the Disciplinary Committee, the Charter Case Committee will not issue to the press the full details of cases as a news article. Instead, it will publish a warning notice on the RCVS website summarising the area of concern, the relevant sections of the Code that were breached and supporting guidance it referred to, and the reasons for issuing the warning. These warning notices will remain on the RCVS website for a maximum of two years and do not change the registration status of the individual.
The reforms themselves grew out of the Legislation Working Party’s review of the legislative framework for the veterinary professions, including a review of the RCVS disciplinary system. These reforms, however, do not require legislative change and so can be implemented by a majority vote of Council and under the powers of the current Veterinary Surgeons Act and Royal Charter.
The reforms to the concerns investigation and disciplinary procedures are likely to take some months to implement and the RCVS will be looking to recruit additional Preliminary Investigation Committee members in due course.