The complaint against the above former individual member/registrant was taken to Adjudication in line with the Professional Conduct Procedure.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, is that between February to March Year 5, the Complainant and X saw Ms Harris for joint therapy counselling. [ . . . ]. The Complainant says she also had individual counselling with Ms Harris between approximately April and July Year 1.
The Complainant reported that, in a session in early February Year 5, she disclosed that [ . . . ]. Ms Harris reportedly told her that ‘[ . . . ] was the wrong word’. The Complainant stated that she went on to explain that [ . . . ]. She said Ms Harris dismissed her concerns saying, ‘that was bound to happen with [ . . ]’. The Complainant stated that Ms Harris also dismissed her concerns that [ . . . ]. As a result, the Complainant said she felt so ridiculed that when she began seeing a different counsellor that she did not bring up these issues for several months.
The Complainant stated that she and [ . . . ].
The Complainant reported that she first raised her concerns that her feelings of [ . . .] were not considered or heard in a session on 22 February Year 5. On 13 March Year 5 she had an hour-long telephone conversation with Ms Harris in which it was agreed that Ms Harris would no longer see the Complainant as a client. The Complainant also informed Ms Harris that she (the Complainant) had been advised by [ . . . ]. Ms Harris reportedly argued against this advice and when the Complainant said she intended to involve [ . . . ], Ms Harris also warned her to be careful. The Complainant stated it was not for Ms Harris to provide her with legal advice or to argue against the advice she had been given.
The Complainant reported that in a statement to [ . . . ], which Ms Harris would have been aware of from their individual sessions; that[ . . . ]’, which the Complainant disagrees with; and that [ . . . ]. The Complainant considered this insensitive and disrespectful to her, given her previous disclosures of [ . . . ]. She considered this was also a breach of her confidentiality in that Ms Harris disclosed information that she had obtained through her previous individual counselling with the Complainant.
The Complainant considered it was unprofessional of Ms Harris to give X individual counselling and immediately afterward offer couples counselling. She feels Ms Harris developed a close bond with X in these individual sessions, and that as a result, Ms Harris was completely supportive of X and not objective in the subsequent couples counselling.
GROUNDS IN FAVOUR OF ACCEPTING THIS COMPLAINT
The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, in considering this complaint, had first to satisfy itself that there was a therapeutic relationship between Ms Harris and the Complainant. It noted that Ms Harris said there was not such a relationship and the Complainant had only been invited into the individual counselling with X. However, the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel also took into account that the Complainant had attended a joint session on at least one occasion and there had also been a subsequent lengthy telephone call on 13 March Year 5.
It referred to Paragraph 3 of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EFCP) which applies to ‘all members and registrants of BACP as practitioners providing therapeutically based services, particularly coaching, counselling, pastoral care and psychotherapy….’. The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel determined that given that the Complainant did attend counselling sessions(s) she was entitled to believe that she was a client in the terms of the Ethical Framework and that she was in receipt of a therapeutic service.
The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel then went on to consider the concerns raised. In accepting the complaint made against Ms Alison Harris, it put forward the following allegations:
1. Ms Harris acted contrary to Paragraphs 12,27,31 and 33(a) of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (EFCP) 2016 in that she did not provide clear boundaries as to the way in which the Complainant was to be admitted into therapy or obtain her consent prior to the joint counselling. This was particularly relevant as Ms Harris had been seeing X individually before seeing the Complainant and X jointly. The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel noted that while Ms Harris had said she had not been providing couples counselling and that the Complainant was simply invited into the individual counselling with X, this wasn’t clear from the information available.
Whether intended or not, the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel considered that the Complainant had understood she was attending couples counselling and that there was a therapeutic relationship. It was for Ms Harris to make clear the scope and boundaries of any counselling and to make this clear to the Complainant, and obtain her consent, but Ms Harris had failed to do so. There was no clarity as to the basis on which the Complainant was being seen or her role, and no contract verbal or written. The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel considered that in not being clear about the nature of the meetings, or the Complainant’s role in them, Ms Harris was not doing what she could to develop and protect her client's trust.
2. Ms Harris acted contrary to Paragraph 21 of the EFCP in that she was dismissive of the concerns of [ . . . ] raised by the Complainant in the counselling and that in doing so Ms Harris allegedly failed to respect the Complainant’s privacy and dignity.
3. [ . . . ].
4. [ . . . ].
5. [ . . . ].
6. In addition to Paragraphs 12,21,27,31 and 33(a) of the EFCP 2016, Ms Harris’ alleged behaviour as experienced by the Complainant also suggests a contravention of the ethical principles of being Trustworthy and Beneficence and showed a lack of the personal qualities of Care, Diligence, Empathy, Respect, Resilience and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
Professional Conduct Panel Preliminary Matters
Ms Harris had made a written application for new evidence to be admitted and considered as part of the hearing. The nature of the evidence was a statement from X, which he had only recently provided not having previously been aware of the Complainant submitting a complaint to BACP. Ms Harris said that she was not able to submit the statement until the Complainant had told X about this complaint and X had given his consent to Ms Harris.
The Complainant was invited to respond to the application. She confirmed that the statement had only recently been provided to her by BACP but she had had the opportunity to read and consider it. She objected to the statement being admitted at this late stage because:
• she said X became aware of this complaint to BACP in January Year 6 when the Complainant had to inform [ . . . ]; and
• the statement contained several derogatory comments by X about the Complainant that were not relevant to the complaint and would be prejudicial to the Complainant; and
• the statement included new evidence that the Complainant disagrees with and would not have the opportunity to bring further evidence to counter, which would be prejudicial to her complaint having a fair hearing.
The Chair took advice from the Clerk and consulted with the Panel. Having done so, and taking into account clause 4.7 of the BACP Professional Conduct Procedure (PCP) and the Protocol on New Evidence, the Chair noted the following:
• The email at page 8 of the evidence bundle showed that the Complainant informed the [ . . . ] in November Year 5 about her complaint to BACP regarding Ms Harris. As X was a party to the [ . . . ], it is likely he would have been aware of this.
• Ms Harris could have approached X at any time after she became aware of this complaint and asked him to provide his consent to submit a statement. There was no evidence that she had endeavoured to do so.
• Ms Harris had not provided details of when X gave his consent and so had not demonstrated that she could not have provided the statement earlier.
The Chair decided that Ms Harris had not shown that there was a good and sufficient reason for the statement not being available and submitted within the timescales prescribed in the BACP rules of procedure; and that the admission of the statement at this point would have a prejudicial impact on the Complainant’s ability to fairly present her complaint. Accordingly, the Chair rejected Ms Harris’ application.
The Complainant attended by Skype. The Member Complained Against did not attend and was not represented.
On balance, having fully considered all the evidence submitted, the Panel made the following findings:
1. The Panel noted that Allegation 1 (above) raised four alleged breaches of EFCP:
• Para 12 – failing to do everything to develop and protect clients’ trust.
• Para 27 – failing to work with clients on the basis of their informed consent and agreement.
• Para 31 – failing to provide clients with the information they ought to know in advance in order to make an informed decision about the services they want to receive and how these services will be delivered.
• Para 33(a) – failing to establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in relationships with clients by ensuring that these boundaries are consistent with the aims of working together and beneficial to the client.
The Panel recognised from Ms Harris’ written responses to the complaint that she denied the breaches in Allegation 1. Ms Harris confirmed that the Complainant attended therapy sessions with X in Year 5. However, she said that there was no therapeutic, client-practitioner relationship between her and the Complainant at this time because ‘it was not a joint therapy session, I was merely honouring my client’s request for [the Complainant] to be present.’ Ms Harris said, ‘A Verbal Contract following BACP Guidelines, covering Confidentiality and Safeguarding’ was in place and added that, ‘This was a delicate situation so clear boundaries were defined and agreed at the start of the session and these were strictly adhered to.’ The Panel also noted that Ms Harris’ response appeared to only refer to one session that the Complainant attended with X.
The Complainant made a short verbal summary of her complaint and was then questioned by the Panel. From this and her oral testimony in response to its questioning, the Panel observed that the Complainant gave clear, articulate and considered evidence that was consistent with her written submissions. It assessed her as a credible witness.
The Complainant described how she came to see Ms Harris with X. She said X was seeing her individually up to and during the time they saw Ms Harris together. The Complainant explained that in the course of X’s individual therapy, [ . . . ]. She recalled that X suggested they see Ms Harris together but was not sure if X or the Complainant contacted Ms Harris to arrange a session. When pressed, the Complainant confirmed that the sessions that she attended with X were set up separately to X’s planned individual sessions and specifically arranged for the two of them to attend.
The Complainant then described the first session with Ms Harris that she attended with X. The Complainant said that there was no conversation about contracting matters such as confidentiality and boundaries, and the cost had already been agreed when the session was booked. She said there was also no discussion of how many sessions they would need to attend together but she was certain that she and X attended three sessions together, possibly four.
The Panel then asked the Complainant about her phone call with Ms Harris on 13 March Year 5. The Complainant said she called Ms Harris to discuss her unhappiness with Ms Harris about how she had treated the Complainant’s issues. The call was long, over an hour, and she recalled that she had to change phones when her mobile phone battery ran flat. The Complainant recalled telling Ms Harris she did not want to continue ‘couples counselling’ because [ . . . ] with what had been agreed in sessions with Ms Harris. She said Ms Harris agreed it ‘wasn’t working’ and they mutually agreed to end the sessions.
The Panel pressed the Complainant about what was discussed in relation to boundaries. She said that Ms Harris said she would not disclose what X had told her in his individual sessions unless he gave specific consent but did not set out any other boundaries or confidentiality framework. The Complainant explained she did not feel she gave informed consent to Ms Harris to be involved in the sessions with X because Ms Harris did not give her the information she needed to consent. Specifically, Ms Harris did not explain that it was unusual for a therapist to see a client for a long time individually and then see the client with their partner as a couple; and when the Complainant learned this was unusual from her subsequent therapist, it ‘broke the trust [she’d] had for Ms Harris.’
Having duly considered the written and oral evidence presented by the parties, the Panel was persuaded by the credibility of the Complainant’s testimony in response to questioning. It concluded that the Complainant saw Ms Harris with X on at least three occasions and the only boundary put in place by Ms Harris was to protect X’s confidentiality. The Panel considered the need for this boundary was indicative that Ms Harris recognised that these sessions were different to X’s individual sessions.
The Panel found that both parties were consistent that there was no pre-session information provided to the Complainant and the information normally provided to a client was not given to the Complainant by Ms Harris. It did not accept Ms Harris’ submission that such was not required. The Panel accepted the Complainant’s evidence that she considered herself to be a client of Ms Harris at these sessions, which was clear evidence that Ms Harris, who asserts the Complainant was not a client, did not clearly communicate with the Complainant so that she could give informed consent to participate.
The Panel was clear that Ms Harris, as the professional in the sessions, was obliged to be clear and ensure she obtained the Complainant’s consent based on a clear, mutual understanding; and this she had not done. It was also satisfied that the impact of these failings was prejudicial to the trust the Complainant had placed in Ms Harris.
Accordingly, the Panel was satisfied that all four breaches alleged in Allegation 1 were proved and upheld this allegation in full.
2. The Complainant told the Panel that she felt she ‘wasn’t heard’ by Ms Harris in the sessions with X. She described an occasion when Ms Harris said, ‘that’s not [ . . . ], you’ve used the wrong word’ and said that every time she raised the issue of feeling [ . . . ], Ms Harris dismissed her feelings.
She described raising this in the phone call on 13 March Year 5. Again, she said Ms Harris was dismissive, saying that she was a ‘very experienced counsellor’ and ‘these things are checked’ referring to her professional supervision. The Complainant explained to the Panel that Ms Harris’ reactions, in the context of her pre-existing therapeutic relationship with X, made the Complainant feel that she was not listened to. She felt Ms Harris prejudged the relationship between the Complainant and X based on what he had said in individual therapy. She ‘didn’t feel the relationship was fair.’
The Panel examined Ms Harris’ responses to the complaint. It noted she said, ‘I disregard the rest of her comments as hearsay and contrary to how I recall the dialogue’ and added that ethically she would not have been dismissive as she takes all reports of [ . . . ] very seriously.
The Panel duly considered the written and oral evidence presented by the parties and was persuaded by the credibility of the Complainant’s testimony in response to questioning. It noted the Complainant gave specific, detailed examples of [ . . . ] and the responses from Ms Harris. It was satisfied that Ms Harris failed to acknowledge the Complainant’s concerns and recognise how she felt, which the Panel found was dismissive.
The Panel determined that this conduct by Ms Harris was a failure to respect the Complainant’s dignity and it therefore upheld Allegation 2 in full.
3. Allegation 3 was not put forward by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel so was not considered by the Professional Conduct Panel.
4. Allegation 4 was not put forward by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel so was not considered by the Professional Conduct Panel.
5. Allegation 5 was not put forward by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel so was not considered by the Professional Conduct Panel.
6. In light of the above findings, the Panel found that paragraphs 12,21,27,31 and 33(a) of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 had been breached and that these findings amounted to a contravention of the principles of Being Trustworthy and Beneficence and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Care, Diligence, Empathy, Respect and Wisdom to which all counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
The Panel was unanimous that its findings amounted to professional malpractice, in that the service for which Ms Harris was responsible fell below the standards that would reasonably be expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable care and skill.
The Panel scrutinised the information that was before it and was not able to identify any evidence of remorse, reflection or insight from Ms Harris or other matters that amounted to mitigation.
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 so, the Panel decided that, if Ms Harris were still a member of the BACP, then it would have required her, no earlier than 3 months and no later than 6 months from the date of imposition of this sanction, which would have run from the expiration of the appeal deadline, to:
1. Submit evidence of the arrangements she has put in place to ensure compliance with the contracting requirements set out in the BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2018, including, but not limited to, paragraphs 30, 31, 32 and 33.
2. Submit a reflective written statement evidencing her learning in relation to the issues to be considered when moving from one therapeutic relationship to another; in particular, boundaries, conflicts and difficulties. This statement should consider, but not be limited to:
a. introducing a third party into a client’s therapy sessions when there is a pre-existing, individual therapeutic relationship with that client; and,
b. introducing a client’s partner into the client’s therapy sessions when there is a pre-existing, individual therapeutic relationship with that client;
c. how conflict can impact the ability to empathise
3. Discuss this statement in supervision and obtain her supervisor’s signature confirming that it has been discussed and is a true record of the discussion.
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