The complaint against the above individual member/registrant was taken to Adjudication in line with the Professional Conduct Procedure.
The complaint was heard under the BACP Professional Conduct Procedure and the Panel considered the alleged breaches of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, was that Ms Oliver was the Complainant's [ . . . ] coach for 7 years between 2004 and 2012. In 2012 the Complainant stated the relationship changed to a therapeutic one, and Ms Oliver became her therapist. From 2012- Sep 2015 there was numerous out of session communications via email, and many of the emails were signed off by Ms Oliver with kisses.
Towards the end of summer 2015, the Complainant stated that Ms Oliver put different boundaries in place, although allegedly there was never a written contract. The Complainant believed that these changes included not meeting at weekends, as well as sessions moving from 60 minutes to 50 minutes. Ms Oliver, in her reply to the Complainant, on 13th March 2016, wrote that this was a misunderstanding and that whilst her website stated that sessions would be 50 minutes this was "for new clients only". On 28th October 2015 the Complainant wrote to Ms Oliver pointing out that her website still offered weekend and evening appointments. Whilst Ms Oliver responded by thanking her for pointing out the error, the Complainant reported that this information remained current on the website in January 2016.
On 9th March 2016, the Complainant wrote to Ms Oliver requesting a meeting and setting out some questions that she had regarding the therapy. Ms Oliver responded in writing on 9th March 2016 but the Complainant was not satisfied with her response and wrote again on 14th March 2016 stating that a face to face meeting would ensure
that matters could be cleared up. Ms Oliver refused to meet face to face on the grounds that she had nothing more to add and that the Complainant [ . . . ].
The Complainant stated that she found the whole situation challenging and was still angry at the way she had been treated.
The Complainant stated that the main issue was that prior to entering counselling, she and Ms Oliver had a pre-existing dual relationship in that in addition to life-coaching, they both belonged to a network group, and the Complainant assisted Ms Oliver's [ . . .] with IT. The Complainant stated that with hindsight she should not have entered into therapy with someone with whom she has a dual relationship as this has increased her suffering regarding the end of the relationship.
The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, in accepting this complaint, was concerned with the allegations and information set out within the complaint suggesting
contravention of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy, and those in particular as follows:
1. Ms Oliver allegedly failed to provide the Complainant with a good quality of care and competently delivered services which met her needs, in that she engaged in numerous out of session email correspondence with the Complainant, and signed off her emails to the Complainant with an "x" signifying a kiss, causing the Complainant to believe that their emails were more than therapeutic.
2. Ms Oliver allegedly failed to clarify and agree the rights and responsibilities of her as a practitioner and the Complainant as a client at appropriate points in their relationship, namely when their relationship changed from coaching to counselling; and with regard to the duration of the sessions, allegedly stating on one occasion that
the session would be 50 minutes instead of 60 minutes.
3. Ms Oliver allegedly failed to adequately inform the Complainant about the nature of the services being offered in that on one occasion Ms Oliver changed the session time from 60 minutes to 50 minutes without notice or consultation.
4. Ms Oliver allegedly failed to use independent resolution, such as mediation, when she was aware that the Complainant was not satisfied that she had acted in accordance with good practice.
5. Ms Oliver allegedly failed to ensure that all information about services was honest, accurate and avoided unjustifiable claims, in that her website did not provide accurate information about the days that she offered sessions and the duration of these sessions.
6. Ms Oliver allegedly had a conflict of interest with the Complainant, in that whilst she was her therapist, she also held meetings with the Complainant regarding her [ . . . ]'s employment with the Complainant, and entered into personal email correspondence with the Complainant regarding this matter.
7. Ms Oliver's alleged behaviour, as experienced by the Complainant and as identified in the numbered paragraphs referred to above, suggests a contravention in particular of paragraphs 1, 3 and 63 and the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy and Beneficence of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2010) and paragraphs 1, 3, 12, 45, 60 and 63 and the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy and Beneficence of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2013), and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Sincerity, Integrity and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
As a preliminary issue the Panel noted that there were four typographical errors in the focus of complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel. The parties agreed and the Panel directed that the focus of complaint should be amended as follows:
- Paragraph 1, line 2 - "8 years" should be amended to read "7 years"
- Paragraph 2, line 4 - "13th March 2015" should be amended to read "13th March 2016"
- Paragraph 3, lines 2-3 - "9th March 2015" should be amended to read "9th March 2016"
- Paragraph 3, lines 3-4 - "14th March 2015" should be amended to read "14th March 2016".
These amendments have been incorporated in the focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, set out above.
On balance, having fully considered the above, the Panel made the following findings:
1. In considering this allegation the Panel firstly made the following findings of fact:
a. Both parties agreed in their oral evidence that the therapeutic relationship between Ms Oliver and the Complainant started in August 2012 and ended on 4 September 2015;
b. Ms Oliver admitted, and there was ample documentary evidence of numerous out of session email correspondence between Ms Oliver and the Complainant during this period;
c. Many of these were signed off by Ms Oliver with an "x".
The Panel noted that Ms Oliver said that using an "x" was carried over from her previous coaching relationship with the Complainant. She recognised that it was
inappropriate and a mistake once she became the Complainant's counsellor. The Complainant told the Panel that she had never raised a concern with Ms Oliver over her use of an "x" in emails and didn't raise this in her original complaint. At the time she felt this practice reflected a "fondness and closeness that we had". But she now knows it was inappropriate.
Accordingly, the Panel concluded that, at the time, the Complainant was not caused to believe that the emails were more than therapeutic either by the number of emails, Ms Oliver's use of an "x", or the combination of the two. As such the Panel was not satisfied that Ms Oliver failed to provide the Complainant with a good quality of care and competently delivered service which met her needs in this instance.
This allegation is therefore not upheld.
2. The Panel noted that Ms Oliver and the Complainant agreed that there was no written contract when their relationship changed from coaching to counselling in August 2012. But they did have discussions about this change of relationship. The Complainant said they discussed not having out of session contact, for example in the [ . . . ] networking group they both attended. Ms Oliver told the Panel that she "understood it was important to make things clear" and she explained that they "couldn't be friends" once they were in a therapeutic relationship. But Ms Oliver admitted her behaviour was inconsistent with what she told the Complainant.
The Panel was satisfied that Ms Oliver made attempts to clarify and agree their respective rights and responsibilities in August 2012; this was supported by Ms Oliver's client and supervision log sheets. But it noted that neither party was able to give specifics or clearly explain their understanding of these. The Panel therefore concluded that Ms Oliver hadn't explained their respective rights and responsibilities sufficiently clearly.
Ms Oliver and the Complainant disagreed about what happened in their meeting in September 2015 regarding Ms Oliver's alleged failure to be clear about the duration of the Complainant's sessions. The Panel heard both parties agree that throughout their coaching and counselling relationship, Ms Oliver's routine practice was to warn the Complainant when there were 5-10 minutes of the session left. It concluded that it is more likely than not that this is what happened in September 2015, but the Complainant, on this occasion, misunderstood and thought Ms Oliver was changing the length of their sessions. It also noted that the Complainant had said in oral evidence that the September 2015 session was still 60 minutes, and the alleged change only related to future sessions. The Panel also found that Ms Oliver hadn't stated that the session in September 2015 would be 50 minutes instead of 60 minutes.
This allegation is therefore upheld in part.
3. As a result of the evidence referred to in allegation 2, and its findings of fact in relation to allegation 2 above, the Panel was satisfied that Ms Oliver had not changed the Complainant's session time from 60 minutes to 50 minutes.
Therefore, this allegation is not upheld.
4. The Complainant told the panel in oral evidence that the period January 2013 to January 2015 was a successful period of counselling with Ms Oliver. The Complainant then told Ms Oliver she wanted to stop counselling and they agreed a series of four sessions to properly end the relationship. She said that by the end of the third session, in June 2015, the relationship had been resolved and they mutually agreed to a three month break and to continue the counselling in September 2015. At the first session back, on 4 September 2015, the Complainant became very upset with Ms Oliver and ended the relationship. Ms Oliver said that she suspected the Complainant was not satisfied that Ms Oliver had acted in accordance with good practice in October 2015. By December 2015, Ms Oliver says she was sure. The Panel therefore found that Ms Oliver became aware that the Complainant was not satisfied that Ms Oliver had acted in accordance with good practice at some point between October and December 2015.
Ms Oliver told the Panel she had looked at the BACP website for options to resolve this in October 2015 and discussed the appropriateness of mediation with her supervisor and a solicitor with expertise in mediation. Ms Oliver's supervisor's email shows she thought "mediation might be a way forward, but also that it might not resolve completely the client's need for contact". Ms Oliver told the Panel the solicitor didn't think that mediation, where parties are in separate rooms, would be appropriate. Nevertheless, the Panel was satisfied that Ms Oliver continued to try to arrange mediation, but that it proved impractical to set up.
The Panel noted that paragraph 45 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013 edition) says practitioners "may wish to use independent dispute resolution...where this is both appropriate and practical". It concluded that it was not mandatory for Ms Oliver to use mediation or any other independent dispute resolution, particularly where more experienced professionals questioned the suitability of mediation and its arrangement was impractical.
This allegation is therefore not upheld.
5.The parties agreed that the Complainant informed Ms Oliver by email on 28 October 2015 that she had "noticed you are offering weekend and evening appointments". The Complainant then reminded Ms Oliver that her website still contained this information on 24 January 2016. The Panel noted the statement from Ms Oliver's website manager that Ms Oliver had asked him to makes changes to her website in October 2015, and then again on 24 January 2016. When questioned by the Panel, Ms Oliver said that when the Complainant brought this to her attention, she'd asked her website manager to remove reference to her offering evening and weekend appointments. But she admitted that she had allowed the information on her website to become out of date, and therefore inaccurate.
The Panel was satisfied that Ms Oliver had failed to ensure the information about her services was accurate. However, her mistake fell far short of being dishonest; further, the inaccurate information did not include unjustifiable claims and was not inconsistent with maintaining the good standing of the profession. The Panel concluded, therefore, that there had been a technical breach of paragraph 60 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013 edition). It noted that there was no evidence that the inaccuracy had benefitted Ms Oliver or had an adverse effect on the Complainant or any other client.
Therefore this allegation was upheld.
6. Both parties agreed in their oral evidence that they met and discussed Ms Oliver's [ . . . ] working for the Complainant on two occasions at the Complainant's home, and once at Ms Oliver's home. These meetings took place after 18 August 2012 and ended before 21 January 2013. Ms Oliver admitted that this was a conflict of interest and that she didn't take any steps to avoid it. The Panel considered it to have been foreseeable and avoidable.
Therefore this allegation is upheld.
7. In light of the above findings, the Panel was satisfied that paragraphs 3 and 63 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2010 edition) had been breached. It was also was satisfied that paragraph 60 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013 edition) and the ethical principle of Autonomy had been breached. It also found that Ms Oliver demonstrated a lack of the personal moral quality of Wisdom to which all practitioners are strongly urged to aspire.
The Panel did not find that paragraph 1 of the Ethical Framework (2010) had been breached.
The Panel did not find that paragraphs 1, 3, 12, 45, 63 of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2013); nor the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy and Beneficence or the personal moral qualities of Sincerity or Integrity had been breached.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that the findings above amounted to professional malpractice, in that the services for which Ms Oliver was responsible fell below the standards that would be reasonably expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable care and skill.
The Panel listened carefully to the mitigation presented by [ . . . ] on behalf of Ms Oliver, including the testimonials that had been provided. The Panel noted that Ms Oliver has taken responsibility for her conduct, making clear and unequivocal admissions. She also demonstrated remorse and apologised to the Complainant. The Panel also noted Ms Oliver has otherwise had a fairly long and unblemished career as a counsellor.
The Panel recognised that the Complainant was Ms Oliver's first client at a time when she was still in training and inexperienced. While the decision whether to become the Complainant's counsellor was Ms Oliver's responsibility, the Panel noted that she sought and followed appropriate support and advice from more experienced professionals; Ms Oliver discussed the matter with her supervisor and advised the Complainant to discuss it with her GP.
When Ms Oliver became aware that the Complainant was unhappy with the quality of care, the Panel noted Ms Oliver had again sought appropriate support and advice; and she had investigated alternative ways to resolve the situation. Even after the therapeutic relationship had ended, Ms Oliver continued to try and support the Complainant, responding to numerous emails.
The Panel observed that since these events, Ms Oliver had shown good insight; she had taken responsibility for her decisions and behaviour; she had recognised and learned from her mistakes through reflection; and changed her practice for the better as a result.
Finally, the Panel noted evidence that Ms Oliver is a good therapist; and that the Complainant agreed that Ms Oliver had provided her with a good quality of care for a period of two years, the majority of their time as counsellor and client.
One of the aims of the Professional Conduct Procedure is to protect members of the public. The Panel, in considering what sanction may be appropriate in the circumstances of this case, has taken into account the interests of public protection.
Having done this, the Panel did not consider it appropriate to impose a sanction.
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