Public interest cases

Fitness to Practise - September 2015

 

Delays in fitness to practise process

University of East Anglia

A student complained to the OIA after he was withdrawn from a degree leading to a professional qualification for professional misconduct.

The OIA found that the University properly considered the student’s case and that its decision to withdraw him was in line with both the University’s and the professional regulatory body’s regulations. However we were critical of the amount of time it took. While the University’s procedure did not specify a time frame we were concerned that it took the University more than twelve months from the date of the investigating officer’s report to schedule the appropriate disciplinary meeting. This meant that the student had embarked on a new academic year before the decision to withdraw him was finalised.

The OIA found the case Partly Justified. We recommended that the University refund his fees for the academic year and make an additional payment for distress and inconvenience.

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University of Northampton

A student at the University of Northampton complained after the University decided she was unfit to practise following disclosure of criminal charges against her.

The OIA found that the University had followed its procedures correctly and that the outcome was in line with its regulations. However we considered that the University took too long to convene a Fitness to Practise panel after the conclusion of the court case and the initial investigation, given the potential seriousness of the outcome for the student.

We found the complaint Partly Justified. We recommended financial compensation for the student for distress and inconvenience and recommended that the University clarify its procedures to include timescales.

 

Competence standards

De Montfort University

A student nurse at De Montfort University complained to the OIA after the University turned down her grounds for appeal against being withdrawn from her course.

The student had been referred to a Fitness to Practise panel following concerns about her clinical practice, including in administering drugs, taking observations and carrying out nursing procedures. The panel decided that because of the seriousness of the proven concerns and the need to safeguard the public it had no option but to withdraw the student. The panel’s decision was based on full consideration of the evidence and the outcome in line with both the University and the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s regulations.

The student sought to appeal on the grounds that the decision to withdraw her was too severe, especially given that she had a diagnosed learning difficulty. Under the Equality Act 2010 the duty to make reasonable adjustments does not extend to a competence standard, defined as “an academic, medical or other standard applied for the purpose of determining whether a person has a particular level of competence or ability.” Given that the fitness to practise panel’s consideration of the student’s case related to a competence standard the OIA agreed with the University that it was not required to make adjustments.

The OIA found the case Not Justified.

 

Transparency

Leeds Beckett University

A student at Leeds Beckett University complained after his appeal against withdrawal from his course was turned down.

The University had considered a number of alleged breaches of its conduct regulations both in the course of the student’s clinical practice and in his interactions with other students. In finding him guilty of two breaches it relied on witness statements that had been anonymised for the purposes of the hearing.

The OIA considered that this was not a fair process as he was not informed of who provided information. The use of anonymous witness statements appeared to have breached the University’s regulations. While we accepted the University’s explanation that it wished to protect students from possible intimidation, that needed to be balanced against a duty of fairness to the student facing fitness to practise proceedings.

The OIA also found procedural irregularities in the way the University had notified the student of the grounds on which he could appeal.

The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We recommended that the University offer him the right to have his appeal referred to an appeal committee.

 

Disclosure

Plymouth University

A student at Plymouth University complained about the process followed and decision taken by the University to withdraw her from a nursing course.

The University followed its fitness to practise procedure after details emerged about issues in the student’s personal life that raised questions about her ability to meet safeguarding children requirements. Its decision to remove her from the course and set conditions on her being able to re-apply was based on concerns that she had not reported the issues to the University.

Nursing students are expected by universities and their professional regulators to have the insight to act on issues that may give rise to professional concern. While the OIA will not interfere with the professional judgment of a university that a student is fit or unfit to practise, it can look at the circumstances that led to that decision. We decided that the University had followed procedures and considered carefully the evidence before it, and found the complaint Not Justified.

 

Importance of keeping records of proceedings

Swansea University

A student at the Swansea University complained about the University’s decision not to uphold her application for a final review of the outcome of a Fitness to Practise committee.

The student was referred to Fitness to Practise procedures when it emerged that she had withheld information in her application to a course that was subject to professional requirements. She sought a review of the decision to exclude her on the grounds of irregularities in the conduct of the relevant procedures, and on the severity of the sanction.

One of the procedural grounds for review was that the student did not agree with the minutes of the Fitness to Practise committee meeting.  The University had invited her to make revisions and was able to demonstrate how it had considered her suggestions. The OIA reviewed the original and revised minutes and concluded that it was reasonable for the University to describe some of student’s proposed changes as introducing new arguments in response to evidence presented to the committee and its findings.

The sanction imposed was within regulations and it was clearly signalled to applicants that ‘Failure to disclose anything relevant which is subsequently discovered could lead to termination of… training’. The University concluded that the failure to disclose the information was a serious matter which meant that the student could not continue with her studies.

In light of all the information available the OIA considered it reasonable for the University to conclude that there were no grounds to re-open the case. We found the student’s complaint Not Justified.

 

Importance of Clear Procedures

London South Bank University

A student at London South Bank University complained about the University’s decision not to uphold his appeal against his withdrawal from the course on fitness to practise grounds.

Following concerns about the student’s conduct on a placement the University wrote to him inviting him to a meeting. The letter did not make it clear that this was a precursor to referring him to a fitness to practise panel or make him aware of the potential seriousness of the meeting.  The student was not sent copies of the information presented to the panel, and was not provided with a copy of the minutes.

The OIA found the student’s complaint Justified. We noted that at the time the University did not have a published Fitness to Practise procedure. We recommended that the University set up a fresh panel, and establish a formal procedure for dealing with future cases.

 

Procedural irregularity

Cardiff University

A student at Cardiff University complained about the University’s decision to reject her appeal against a finding that she was unfit to practise and was required to withdraw from the University.

The student was subject to fitness to practise proceedings following a criminal conviction. The fitness to practise committee concluded that the conviction made her unfit to practise in her chosen profession. This was in line with the regulations of both the University and the relevant regulatory body.

The University’s appeals process allows appeals against the outcome of a fitness to practise committee on two grounds – irregularities in the conduct of the committee; or the presentation of extenuating circumstances or new information that was not for good reason available at the time.

The student sought to appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity, arguing that she had not had a fair hearing as the School’s representative had stated that the School did not wish the student to return, and that no evidence had been presented to support the School’s view that her conviction would make it difficult to secure a placement.

The Regulations specifically allowed for a representative of the School to attend and provide information to the committee. We were therefore satisfied that it was reasonable for the School’s views to be presented and taken into account. We were also satisfied that it was reasonable for the School, which organised placements, to advise on the likely impact of the student’s conviction on her acceptance into another placement, should she be found otherwise fit to practise.

The student also argued that the University had not taken into account the circumstances leading to her conviction in making its decision. We agreed with the University that its role was not to look at the criminal offence but to consider whether the conviction meant the student was not fit to practise.

The OIA found the complaint Not Justified. We concluded that the University had acted reasonably in rejecting the student’s appeal. The Fitness to Practise Committee had correctly followed its procedures, and reasonably decided that the student’s criminal conviction constituted a breach of the professional regulatory code for her profession and meant that she was unfit to practise.