BACP and its members have long recognised the need for high standards and competent practice. Hand in hand with this is the appreciation of safe practice. However, it is a sad reality that safe practice does on occasion break down. This often results from a failure to maintain professional boundaries or from poor contracting. When this occurs, the aggrieved client may make a complaint to BACP.
In a perfect world there would be no unsafe practice and no complaints. However, the world is not perfect and we need to have a mechanism to deal with complaints when they are made. The mechanism is the professional conduct procedure, and it is crucial for both public protection and for public confidence in BACP members as trusted practitioners.
Over the past few years we have been working hard to modernise BACP’s professional conduct procedure, in consultation with members, other concerned bodies and the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (the Authority) – the body that accredits our Register. The new professional conduct procedure has now received approval from the Authority and will be formally adopted on 1 December 2018. We would like to thank all those who took part in the consultation process and to acknowledge your contributions, which significantly assisted our thinking and were invaluable in informing our task of drafting the new procedure.
This article will briefly summarise the main changes. Further information can be found in Professional conduct.
Making a complaint
Making a complaint and being the subject of a complaint can be distressing for all parties involved. While the number of formal complaints made against BACP members is tiny in relation to the size of the membership, in the interest of public protection and the protection of the reputation of the counselling professions, it is incumbent upon BACP to ensure those complaints are properly addressed. It is no less important that, when concerns are raised about a member’s conduct, we investigate those concerns fairly and address them through the agreed professional conduct procedure.
However, in the past, members have raised a number of concerns about the procedure: that it privileges the client’s perspective; that it is unduly punitive; that it is too cumbersome and often disproportionate to the seriousness of the complaint; and that members feel unsupported and punitively judged by the process itself, even when the complaint is not upheld.
The new professional conduct procedure seeks to modernise the way in which we process complaints. It puts more resources into the early stages of the investigation and offers a wider range of ways to resolve complaints at this earlier stage, without having to proceed to a full adjudication hearing. The aim of these changes is to reduce the length of time it takes for a complaint to be processed and ensure the outcome is proportionate, while offering the same level of protection to the public and clients and ensuring the care clients receive from our members is of a reasonable and acceptable quality.
What are the changes?
The following are the main changes introduced to BACP’s new professional conduct procedure.
- On receipt of a complaint against a member, the case manager assigned to the case will apply a threshold test to decide if the complaint is serious enough to require further consideration. The test is that the alleged and evidenced facts should, if proved, amount to a failure by the member complained against to meet professional standards and that the complaint is not vexatious and/or frivolous.
- The case manager can at this point ask the complainant and/or the member complained against for any further information they feel is necessary to fully assess the issues raised in the complaint. The member complained against will also be given an opportunity to comment on the complaint, if they so wish, before it is assessed further.
- If appropriate, a letter of advice may be issued to the member complained against, as a proportionate response to the issues raised, without the need to refer the complaint to a hearing panel.
- The old Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel has been replaced with the Investigation and Assessment Committee (IAC).
- A new evidential test (the realistic prospect test) has been introduced whereby the IAC assesses whether it is satisfied that there is a realistic prospect that a hearing panel would find there had been a breach of the professional standards.
- Where appropriate, and where it is in the public interest to do so, the IAC can make an interim suspension order, temporarily suspending a member’s BACP membership until a final determination is made on the allegations against them.
- A new consensual disposal has been introduced before the complaint proceeds to a formal hearing. This is an agreement between BACP and the member that allows the member to make admissions and agree to a sanction deemed appropriate by the IAC that would address the conduct deemed to have fallen below the expected standard. This allows timely and proportionate outcomes to be achieved without having to progress a matter to a formal hearing.
- Two types of hearing have been introduced. The disciplinary proceedings track is for allegations of professional misconduct; the practice review process is less formal and will deal with issues of poor service.
- Where appropriate BACP can bring a complaint itself. It will also present to the hearing panel all cases that are dealt with on the disciplinary hearings track.
- A member’s previous disciplinary history can be considered by the hearing panel when deciding an appropriate sanction.
The new professional conduct procedure comes into effect from 1 December 2018. Complaints received before this date will be processed under the old professional conduct procedure. Complaints received on or after this date will be processed under the new procedure.
We understand that complaints generally take place when the counselling relationship has broken down between the practitioner and client and that this is often painful for both parties. We have a responsibility to promote safe standards of practice and public protection, but we do not lose sight of the individuals involved.
We believe the new procedure will allow more flexibility for sifting complaints at an earlier stage and offers a greater range of complaint outcomes, such as consensual disposal, in the processing of complaints. It will continue to promote fairness in the processing of complaints and giving a voice to both parties.