The complaint against the above 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 as follows:
The Complainant was a student on a Level 3 Counselling Skills Course. [ . . . ].
The Complainant states that, in April Year 2, she [ . . . ] and that she wanted to change that. Ms Mather explained that the Complainant would not be allowed to begin the Level 4 course until [ . . . ], which the Complainant reports understanding.
At the time, Ms Mather was offering reduced-rate counselling from Level 4 trainees. She suggested to the Complainant that one trainee, person X1, would be a good match for the Complainant, who agreed to see X1 for counselling despite being initially reluctant to work with [ . . . ]. The Complainant states that no contract was signed between herself and X1; [ . . . ].
The Complainant ended the face to face therapy with X1 after 7 sessions [ . . . ]. Afterwards, [ . . . ]. She reports that, at her request, on 21 August Year 2, X1 talked to Ms Mather about [ . . . ]. Ms Mather then contacted the Complainant, saying that they must meet to discuss what had happened. Following an exchange of emails Ms Mather cancelled this meeting. Another one was arranged for 30 August Year 2, which, ultimately, the Complainant declined to attend. She states that she [ . . . ].
Ms Mather then wrote to the Complainant on 31 August Year 2, informing her that she must take “time out” from the course in order to recover from [ . . . ]. Ms Mather suggested that the Complainant should work through [ . . . ] before returning to the course. In this letter, Ms Mather wrote that had the organisation known that the Complainant [ . . . ], she would not have been accepted onto the Level 3 course in the first place as the admissions policy is that learners should [ . . . ] before the start of the course. The Complainant states that she had not been made aware of this policy prior to starting the course. In a later email, sent 23 September Year 2, Ms Mather wrote that she herself had neither investigated nor made the decision as to the dismissal from the course as she was the Complainant’s tutor.
In a letter dated 23 January Year 3, Ms Mather declared that the decision to withdraw the Complainant from the course had been made because [ . . . ], contrary to the contract she had signed; and because [ . . . ].
The Complainant states that in the course of the investigation she discovered that Ms Mather had broken her confidentiality by discussing the Complainant with a Level 4 group, including stating [ . . . ]. She complains that in giving her X1 as a therapist Ms Mather failed in her duty of care. She also states that she has been financially exploited as she paid [ . . . ] for the course and [ . . . ] for the counselling with X1. She requested a refund, which was refused on the grounds that the Complainant had violated her contract and was therefore liable for the fees.
The Panel, in considering the complaint, only put forward allegations for which it was satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to suggest there was a case to answer.
The Panel, in accepting this complaint, was concerned with the allegations and information set out within the complaint that suggested a contravention of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EFCP), and those in particular as follows:
- On a day or days between June and August Year 2, Ms Mather discussed in class, confidential information disclosed by the Complainant to her counsellor, or allowed that information to be discussed in class, without the Complainant’s permission and without protecting her identity, thereby failing to protect the Complainant’s confidentiality and privacy by actively protecting information about her from unauthorised access, in contravention of paragraph 25(a) of the EFCP.
- On a day or days between 1 July Year 1 and January Year 3, during the process of the Complainant applying to study on the Level 3 Counselling Skills Course, Ms Mather did not provide the Complainant with information concerning conditions applying to applicants with a [ . . . ], thereby failing to provide her with any information about the teaching, education or learning opportunities being provided accurately, which prevented the Complainant making an informed choice about her application, in contravention of paragraph 63 of the EFCP.
- On a day or days between 31 January and 25 April Year 3, in contravention of paragraph 67 of the EFCP, Ms Mather, as a provider of training and education, failed to model high levels of good practice in her work, particularly with regard to expected levels of competence and professionalism, relationship building, the management of personal boundaries, any dual relationships, conflicts of interest and avoiding exploitation, in that she:
- arranged for trainees on the Level 4 Counselling Skills Course to provide counselling services to trainees on the Level 3 Counselling Skills Course; and/or,
- provided the Complainant with conflicting explanations for withdrawing the Complainant from the Level 3 Counselling Skills Course in letters dated 31 August Year 2 and 23 January Year 3.
In addition to paragraphs 25(a), 63 and 67 of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2016), Ms Mather’s alleged behaviour, as experienced by the Complainant and described in the numbered allegations above, also suggests a contravention of the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Autonomy and Non-Maleficence and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Care, Diligence, Integrity, Sincerity and Wisdom to which members and registrants are strongly encouraged to aspire.
Application for New Evidence
An application was made by the Complainant to submit late evidence under the protocol on New Evidence. In line with the protocol, the Panel considered carefully whether the Complainant had provided a good and sufficient reason for the late submission. In the event, it decided that she had, as the information had not been available by the original closing date for submissions. On that basis, and noting that the Member’s representative did not object to the late submission, it determined that it was appropriate to accept the additional evidence and to include the late evidence in the written materials.
Prior to the hearing the witness person X2 advised that she would be unable to attend due to [ . . . ]. While the Panel regretted X2’s absence, it noted that it had already had the written submissions of X2. It also noted that there had already been one previous adjournment. In the circumstances, and after balancing the public interest with the interest of the Member and the Complainant, it decided that it was appropriate to continue with the hearing as arranged.
At the hearing, and with the agreement of both the Member and the Complainant, the Panel also amended the dates in Allegation 3 to read ‘between 31 January Year 2 and 25 April Year 3’.
The Panel made the following findings in relation to the allegations:
The Panel noted that the Complainant had said she first became concerned that her confidentiality may have been breached, during a discussion in the classroom, following a conversation she had with X1 in or around late August Year 2, when he advised that another student had taken exception to his discussing a “[ . . . ]” in class. Then in late Year 2 she became aware that another student, X2, had [ . . . . ]. X2 felt it had been clear this related to the Complainant and that information regarding her personal life had been disclosed.
The Panel also took into account the information from the Member, who was very clear that role play had not taken place during the dates in question and that, if any information were disclosed in the context of a general discussion, it would have been anonymised.
The Panel took into account that there was a significant difference in the information being provided by the Complainant and the Member. It reminded itself that where the evidence available is unclear or contradictory it will apply the civil standard of proof and make its decision on the balance of probabilities or what might be termed what is more likely than not to have happened.
In this case it noted that much of the information available to the Complainant was hearsay and that she had not personally been present when the alleged discussions or role play had taken place. As a result, the Panel was concerned that there was some doubt as to exactly what had been said, or when. Taking all this into account, the Panel could not be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the Member had discussed, or allowed to be discussed, in class information about the Complainant at the relevant dates set out in the allegation. Accordingly, it did not find this allegation proved.
The Panel then went on to consider the information provided to the Complainant regarding the course and the course requirements. It noted that in the letter of 31 August Year 3 from the Member to the Complainant, the Member wrote: “It is the organizations(sic) policy that we do not take learners on until [ . . . ]… However as the extent of this was not disclosed to us until several months into level 3 this did not happen in this instance……”. The letter went on to say that if she had known of [ . . . ], they would not have taken her on and that in the circumstances, the Complainant was advised she could not complete the level 3 course or progress to level 4 until this requirement was met.
The Panel noted the Complainant’s evidence that she had not been asked about [ . . . ] either before or during the course and she had not been aware of this policy until she received this letter. It noted also that, in response to questions, the Member had confirmed that the students had not been made specifically aware of the policy prior to joining the course and were not asked directly about [ . . . ] during the application process. She also acknowledged that the policies on [ . . . ] were not documented or easily accessible.
The Panel also took into account that while the Member had initially stated that she would have expected students to understand that they needed to disclose any relevant information, [ . . . ], she now accepted that, if she were to teach again, she would ensure the policies were more specific and that they were brought to the students’ attention.
The Panel considered that if there were policies that students were expected to comply with then it was reasonable to expect that they would be made aware of them beforehand so they could make an informed decision as to whether they could meet those requirements. That had not happened in this case, as the Member had acknowledged. The Panel considered that, without that information, the Complainant had not been in a position to know that [ . . . ] was outside of the college’s policies. She was therefore unable to make an informed decision as to whether to apply at that time or, possibly, to defer until she was compliant. The Panel noted that in addition to the distress these events had caused the Complainant there had also been a significant financial impact by way of the course fees and counselling costs that had been paid but not refunded.
In summary the Panel concluded that the information provided by the Member to the Complainant on this point between 1 July Year 1 and January Year 3 was inadequate and did not allow her to make an informed choice about her application in contravention of paragraph 63 of the EFCP. It found this allegation proved.
Allegations 3(a) and (b)
The Panel noted that in response to questions the Member accepted these allegations.
The Panel looked first at the issue of Level 4 trainees providing counselling services to trainees on the Level 3 Counselling Skills course. It noted that the Member had initially stated that she did not consider this to be unusual and that she felt it was “filling a gap” for those students who might otherwise have difficulty in finding a placement or in affording counselling. At the time she had felt that the focus of the counselling to be provided in the Complainant’s case had been defined and limited and that the Level 4 trainee X1 had been suitably experienced to provide it. She now accepted however that it could go wrong and lead to “blurred boundaries” and “no clear division between the roles”. She said she had stopped this practice after seeing what had happened in the Complainant’s case.
The Panel considered that this arrangement posed a number of risks to both the trainee counsellor and client. There was a risk that the boundaries could become blurred, as they had in this case, and that this could have significant impact on the client as the Complainant had explained. Further it was not clear what steps had been put in place to monitor this arrangement as it appeared that it was left to the two trainees to make the arrangements, including drawing up a contract for counselling, which in the Complainant’s case had not been done.
The Panel took into account Ms Mather’s submission that she understood that the scope of the counselling to be provided to the Complainant by X1 would be limited to one specific area. However, the Panel was concerned that this failed to recognise that it was not always possible to control what issues would be raised in counselling and this had to be taken into account in setting up arrangements of this kind.
The Panel determined that in allowing X1 (a Level 4 trainee) to provide counselling to the Complainant, a Level 3 student, the Member had failed to model the high levels of good practice, competence and professionalism expected, including the need to ensure that any personal boundaries, dual relationships or conflicts of interest were appropriately managed. Accordingly, the Panel found allegation 3(a) upheld.
The Panel then considered the allegation that in her letters of 31 August Year 2 and 23 January Year 3, the Member had provided the Complainant with conflicting reasons for withdrawing her from the Level 3 course and that in doing so she had acted in breach of paragraph 67 of the EFCP.
The Panel saw that in the first letter, dated 31 August Year 2, the Member stated: “this decision was not made lightly and is fully based on our concern for you and not by any means the consequences of [ . . . ].”
On 23 January Year 3 she gave the reason as both [ . . . ], which had been a breach of the code of ethics. The letter went on to say “The fact that [ . . . ]”.
The Panel considered that the reference in the second letter to [ . . . ] was a direct contradiction of what had been written in the first letter. The Panel took into account the Member’s submission that the letter of 23 January had been written in response to what she saw as a letter before action in relation to the course fees. Nevertheless it took the view that, in giving different reasons at different times, the Member had shown a lack of consistency that was confusing and unprofessional. It noted that the Member had herself now recognised that the letters were different and that on that basis, she now accepted the basis of this allegation against her. The Member had failed to model the high levels of good practice, competence and professionalism expected of her. The Panel therefore found allegation 3(b) upheld.
In light of the above findings, the Panel was satisfied that in addition to paragraphs 25(a),63 and 67 of the Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions (2016) the ethical principles of Autonomy and Non-Maleficence had been breached. It also found that the Member demonstrated a lack of the personal moral qualities of Care, Diligence, Sincerity and Wisdom, to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that the findings amounted to inadequate professional services, in that the services for which the Member was responsible fell below the standards that would be reasonably expected of a practitioner exercising reasonable care and skill.
In making its decision on sanction the Panel took into account that the Member now accepted Allegations 2 and 3(a) and (b) and that although she had now retired from teaching, she had indicated that if she were in a similar situation in the future she would change her practice to avoid anything of this kind happening again. It considered that the Member had therefore shown some insight into the events, which reduced the likelihood of any repetition.
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.
Within 4 weeks of the date of the expiration of the appeal period for this decision the Member must provide a reflective written submission on the following issues:
- the need to ensure clarity in any policies or procedures applicable to the services being provided by the Member and the potential impact of the failure to do so, with particular reference to the events of this case, and
- the need to take steps to ensure that professional boundaries, dual relationships and conflicts of interest are appropriately managed and the risks of the failure to do so, with particular reference to the events of this case
The written submissions must be sent to the Registrar, by the given deadline, and will be independently considered by a Sanction Panel.
(Where ellipses [ . . . ] are displayed, they indicate an omission of text)