Our role in professional standards
Our role in professional conduct matters
As a regulator part of our role is to set a Code of Conduct and investigate cases where architects are acting in a way which falls below the standards we expect, taking further action as necessary. Whilst the number of registrants stands at over 38,000 we receive a relatively small proportion of complaints.
In 2016, 166 formal complaints were made about architects, a slight increase on previous years. Complaints are reviewed by staff and, where appropriate, they are referred to one of ARB’s Investigations Panels (IP). However, not all cases follow this route, over half of the formal complaints received in 2016 were concluded without the need for further investigation. This can happen for a number of reasons. There can be a lack of evidence; the issues complained about are, at times, outside ARB’s remit; or it may be that alternative dispute resolution is more appropriate given the circumstances.
We also receive a range of enquiries that are not formal complaints but to which we are able to respond and provide appropriate advice. These include enquiries from members of the public, who would like to know whether they should make a complaint to us; professional standards enquiries from architects, who want to know if the work they intend to undertake is in keeping with the Code; and enquiries about individuals who are not registered with us.
No further action required
Architects issued with advice
Referred to the Professional Conduct Committee
The professional conduct process
Initial stage – In 2016 the target for closing a complaint or referring it to the IP was 16 weeks. The 16-week target (which has since been reduced to 14 weeks) was set in order to strike a balance between moving the complaint forward expeditiously whilst, at the same time, providing the witnesses and complainants with sufficient time to contribute to the process.
In 2016, it took an average of nine weeks following the receipt of a complaint for a case to be closed or referred to the IP. The 16-week target was met in 86% of cases, a slight decrease on last year’s figure. In the instances when this target was not met, this was most often because those involved did not reply in good time as well as delays due to illness, holidays or other leave. The IP took an average of 10 weeks to reach a decision in 2016 and 81% of decisions were reached within the Key Performance Indicator of 12 weeks, this is consistent with 2015.
The Investigations Pool issued 73 decisions, which is comparable with 2015. In ten of these cases, the outcome was to take no further action, 28 of the decisions issued the architect with advice and 28 resulted in a referral to the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC). The IP took an average of ten weeks to reach a decision in 2016, compared to 11 weeks in 2015.
ARB solicitors – There are four firms of solicitors engaged to prepare and present cases to the PCC. Solicitors have 12 weeks in which to prepare a report to the PCC. On average it took 13 weeks to prepare a report, a slight decrease on the 2015 figure of 11 weeks. 65% of cases met the 12-week target (compared with 71% in 2015).
Whilst this area of work remains vulnerable to the cooperation of third parties in providing witness statements, the performance of all of ARB’s legal providers remains subject to continuous review.
Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) – In 2016 the PCC held 31 hearings over 77 days, a 29% increase on the 2015 hearing figure.
In two of the hearings, the cases concerned two architects from the same practice. The PCC reached different decisions for each architect. As such it reached 33 decisions despite the fact only 31 hearings took place.
Of the 33 decisions, 30 architects were found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct and/or serious professional incompetence, and the PCC made three findings of not guilty.
The number of hearing days increased significantly, from 42 days in 2015 to 77 days in 2016 (an 83% increase). This can be attributed in part to the increasingly active involvement architects have in both the regulatory process and defending of their cases, and a rise in their use of legal representation. There was also a number of complex cases dealt with during the year.
In 2016, the average cost of a hearing (which includes the preparation of the legal case and advocacy where relevant, cost of venue and PCC member/witness/expert witness attendance) was approximately £19,500, an increase on last year’s figure of £16,000. This increase is a consequence of longer and more complex cases, reflected by the 83% increase in hearing days.
There was one appeal against a sanction imposed by the PCC. The High Court upheld the decision of the PCC in its entirety.
In 2016 there was a full recruitment exercise for PCC members, with newly appointed members commencing in September 2016. Consequently, there were a number of mid-year listing delays, where cases were delayed in an effort to reduce the risk of unfinished cases when a changeover of PCC members was imminent.
In 2016, 68% of cases were listed within the KPI of 16 weeks, compared to 91% of cases in 2015.
Third Party Review -– Third Party Review considers the Investigations Procedures that do not have a statutory appeal to the courts. Third Party Review does not revisit the original decision, but looks at whether the process was properly and correctly followed, and that it was appropriate and efficient.
There were four Third Party Reviews undertaken in 2016, a 50% increase on the 2015 figure. Two further applications for a Review were refused on the grounds that they failed to identify any flaws in the procedure by which the decision was reached, which is a requirement of acceptance. Of the four reviews undertaken, two found that there had been shortcomings in the investigations, and recommended that further consideration of the cases would be appropriate. A reconsideration took place in both cases.
Judicial Review – When an architect disagrees with the decision of the PCC an appeal against it can be decided through judicial review. This is a court procedure whereby a judge undertakes a review to decide on the lawfulness of a decision or action made by a public body. In essence, judicial reviews revisit the process by which the decision has been reached rather than the conclusion itself. There were no judicial reviews in 2016.
Investigations Pool vacancy
In 2016, ARB advertised an Investigations Pool vacancy for an architect member with experience in Scottish architectural matters, particularly related to domestic projects. This post was filled by Gordon Gibb.
The most common causes of complaints
The majority of complaints in 2016 continued to be about domestic projects. The most common complaints were allegations under Standard 1, Standard 4 and Standard 6 of the Code of Conduct. These included terms of engagement and failing to communicate adequately with clients.
We have taken steps to alert architects to this information and you can read more about this below in the section on how we communicate the work of the professional standards department.
Code of Conduct
A full review of the Code was conducted in 2016, following a 2015 consultation exercise, which indicated that the Code required changing. It was felt that whilst the Code was largely fit for purpose, it would benefit from minor changes to wording to reduce the risk of any potential misunderstandings, as well as other small revisions to reflect recent changes to laws and regulations. There was a further consultation on the proposed changes and these were agreed by the Board at its meeting in July 2016. Time was also spent in late 2016 on designing the revised Code document and producing summary postcards which were circulated to all architects along with the hard copy retention fee notice.
Communicating the work of the Professional
The Professional Standards Department is proactive in communicating its work, particularly the common causes of complaints. By sharing information about complaints and guidance for practice-related matters the team hopes to prevent architects from repeating the mistakes of others. The regular Dear Architect column which appears in each issue of the ebulletin covers topics such as how to deal with complaints and the importance of issuing written agreements.
We also use the ebulletin to highlight any important news items such as the Code of Conduct consultation that took place in 2016, and to inform readers about any misuse of title prosecutions. The department has continued to use online guidance videos and YouTube in order to keep both registrants and members of the public informed of ARB procedures and work.
Investigations Oversight Committee (IOC) – The Board retains oversight of investigations through the IOC, which is made up of three Board Members as well as the Head of Professional Standards. The IOC assists the Board in discharging its responsibilities under the Act by keeping under review the processes by which allegations of unacceptable professional conduct and serious professional incompetence against architects are investigated under sections 14 (1) and (2) of the Architects Act 1997.
The IOC meets three times a year, and periodically reports back not only on performance, but also on professional standards issues that should be communicated back to the profession.
Annual Report of the PCC – The PCC produces an Annual Report to provide an overview of the work of the Committee. The 2016 Annual Report of the PCC highlighted that the lengths of cases was continuing to increase and noted that five cases were ‘part heard’ in 2015. In order to mitigate the risk of proceedings overrunning and to make the most of the time available, 2016 saw cases begin half an hour earlier. The Report also made reference to the extent to which events in an architect’s personal life can impact on his or her professional standing. The PCC welcomed the proposed addition to the Code to explain to architects that their behaviour outside the workplace may have consequences in this regard.
Disseminating information about decisions – A summary of each decision is sent to the Board as standard procedure. Additionally the IOC has sight of all decisions and each panel member is mindful of previous findings. Many architects have signed up to receive press releases regarding PCC decisions and the regular Dear Architect column in the ebulletin highlights key learning points.
The value of feedback
We offer both architects who are the subject of complaints and members of the public the opportunity to provide us with feedback once the process has been concluded. Whilst we currently receive a relatively low response rate, we will be reviewing our feedback process in an attempt to increase it.
Misuse of title
ARB’s policy for dealing with incidences of misuse of title is two pronged, on the one hand we deal with complaints on this matter, resolving them as necessary, and on the other hand we work to inform the public about the Register and ARB’s role.
Misuse of title complaints – Our procedure for dealing with misuse of title complaints is to investigate and stop any ongoing misuse of title as quickly as possible. We will try to avoid taking court action, and will only proceed with criminal prosecutions where the evidence is strong and if it is in the public interest to do so.
There were several noteworthy cases in relation to misuse of title in 2016 including two cases that resulted in substantial fines and one relating to misuse of title on social media – this case in particular resulted in the individual having to pay over £8,000 for misusing the title, including one offence for misusing the title on the practice’s Twitter profile. Given the ever increasing use of social media as a platform for communication this sends out a message that title abuse on social media can be punished. Other examples of offences successfully prosecuted in 2016 included use of the title on shop signage, on planning applications and business websites.
Informing the public – Our approach to informing the public about the Register and the fact that ‘architect’ is a protected title includes attending consumer shows, promoting our online consumer resources and contacting online directories to check the veracity of their data. We are also working to use search engine optimisation to help raise awareness of the online Register and the registered status of the profession.
Local authority project – In 2016 we had a substantial push on our local authority project, which involves contacting the planning departments of local authorities to ask them to add a link to ARB or the Register from their websites. The project made excellent progress and, by the end of 2016, 73 councils had links to the Register or ARB website.
Achievements in the Professional Standards Department
2016 saw the Professional Standards Department deal with an increased workload at PCC stage without any adverse impact on either timings or costs.
An audit of all complaints investigated over the last five years was undertaken. This provided demographic data regarding complaints received, including breakdown information regarding male/female architects, age, the location of the architect and where they qualified, the source from which the complaint originated and the most common allegations. The Board noted that the audit was as an important learning tool for both ARB and the profession.