In recent years professional people have seen a huge increase in the scrutiny and regulation by their regulatory bodies and indeed some professions who had not previously been regulated have seen new regulatory bodies set up. For example the Northern Ireland Social Care Council which regulates all social workers now has responsibility for care workers as well and as of March this year all social care workers in Northern Ireland have to be regulated by NISCC.
Accordingly more and more professionals now face the possibility of a fitness to practise hearing before their regulatory body.
Indeed there can be situations where your employer is content for you to continue working but your regulatory body is questioning whether or not your fitness to practise is impaired and therefore the power of the regulator should not be underestimated.
Each regulator has its own unique statutory frame work under which it must operate but there are some common legal principles which are applicable and common to each of them. However recently there has been a significant change in the internal regulatory workings of various regulators and dealing with a fitness to practise procedure can be a legal minefield and therefore proper legal representation is highly recommended.
Once somebody faces a referral to a regulatory body there are various steps a solicitor can assist you with.
- Identify the issues in the case at the earliest opportunity and compile a submission to the regulatory body to try to convince them that your fitness to practise is not impaired. Nipping the case in the bud at the earliest opportunity is of course the preferred outcome but it is important that the submission to the regulatory body contains the appropriate information and therefore a solicitor should be able to assist you with the submission.
Some regulatory bodies now have processes in place even when they believe that a registrant’s fitness to practise will not be found to be impaired. The regulator may issue advice and warning. Strategically it might be in the registrant’s interest to accept advice or warning so as to prevent the case from going forward to the next stage and therefore it is important to be properly advised in relation to accepting advice or warning.
- If a case is to move to the next stage it is important to weigh up the evidence against the registrant and to see if there is any evidence to counter the case against the registrant. Early admissions of a charge can often count in the registrants favour and therefore advice on early admissions is important.
- Preparation for the oral hearing (often heard in public) is also critical. It is important for the solicitor to secure the attendance of the appropriate witnesses but also to provide expert representation at the hearing. It is important for the lawyer to prepare the registrant for the hearing and at the hearing lawyers can challenge the legal admissibility of evidence and the can cross-examine the witnesses and deal with points of procedure and law which would not be familiar to the registrant.
The fundamental issue here is that it is important that there is equality of arms between the parties at a hearing and a regulatory body will always be represented by a lawyer and therefore it is only fair that the registrant is also represented by a lawyer.
- If a registrant is guilty of the charges that a regulatory body brings against him or her then an important part of the preparation for the hearing is to ensure that the panel receives mitigation evidence. It is important to show that the registrant has insight into the mistakes that have been made and to show that the registrant has learned from these mistakes. Evidence of re-training can be submitted to the panel and the appropriate submissions made on the registrants behalf.
There is evidence that legally represented registrants achieve a more favourable result from regulators than those who are not and therefore legal representation at regulatory bodies is important.