As a specialist in dealing with claims for adults who have suffered abuse and negligent treatment by mental health professionals, Victoria Thackstone, Switalskis Solicitors’ Litigation Executive, explores submitting a complaint about the practitioner’s conduct to their employer, membership organisation or governing body.
Complaints v Civil Claims
Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between complaints and civil claims, as the outcomes will be very different for each.
Complaints focus on the practitioner’s conduct and whether or not the practitioner is fit to practice.
Successful complaints to employers can result in the practitioner being suspended or even dismissed. Employers are likely to report successful investigations to the practitioner’s professional body or membership organisation. Employers regularly deal with complaints under their disciplinary procedure which fall under employment law and as a result the client is not entitled to know the outcome of the complaint.
Successful complaints to a professional body or membership organisation can result in sanctions being enforced on the practitioner. These sanctions can range from preparing submissions setting out what they have learned from their behaviour, requiring them to undergo additional supervision; suspending their registration to the complaint organisation for a specific period of time; or even terminating their membership.
Complaints do not generally consider how the practitioner’s conduct impacted on their client and it is highly unlikely that a successful complaint will result in the client receiving financial compensation.
The only outcome of a successful civil claim is financial compensation. Some practitioners offer apologies, but this is not a guaranteed outcome.
Civil claims are not designed to punish the practitioner; they are designed to enable the client to obtain compensation as a result of the harm that they have suffered.
Whilst it is necessary to be able to prove the practitioner has been negligent in their treatment of the client, the focus of the civil claim is how the practitioner’s conduct has impacted on the client as that is how compensation is calculated.
Who Can The Client Complain To?
The answer to this depends on who the client has seen – the qualifications of the practitioner and whether the practitioner was employed or self-employed.
Only practitioners that have a protected title have to be registered with a state regulatory body in order to practice. Doctors (to include psychiatrists) have to be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC), nurses with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and social workers with Social Work England. Art therapists, occupational therapists and practitioner psychologists must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
Currently, counsellors and therapists are not state regulated and do not have to be a member of a voluntary membership organisation to practice. There are voluntary membership organisations which counsellors and therapists can apply to be members of such as the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), and the British Psychological Society (BPS).
For ease I will refer to regulatory bodies and membership organisations as an “organisation”.
If the practitioner is a private practitioner and is a member of an organisation a complaint can be made to the organisation.
If the practitioner is employed, for example by the NHS, a private service or charity, a complaint can be made to the employer as well as to the practitioner’s organisation.
The client also has the option of reporting the practitioner to the police. It is our experience that police prosecution is rare, not because the police do not believe what is being said to them or they do not think that the issues are serious, but because the relevant law is difficult to interpret and apply so as to prove a case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as is required in a criminal court. In particular for events of a sexual nature, a criminal prosecution is more likely where a client is clearly incapable of consenting.
Pre-Complaint Due Diligence
Each organisation is very likely to have a specific time period for submitting a complaint and this must be complied with. We suggest that the client contacts the organisation if they do not believe they will be able to submit the complaint within that time period, to discuss an extension or allowing the complaint to proceed outside the given time period.
We appreciate that within the “complaint content” section below there is information and documentation that the client may be reluctant to divulge and we suggest the client consults the organisation to establish what information will be disclosed to the practitioner, to include their personal information and any appendices to the complaint.
It is advisable to consider the organisation’s code of ethics to identify how the practitioner’s conduct was in breach of them, as some organisations expect the client to set out which specific parts of a code of ethics the practitioner has breached and to give examples of the breaches.
The observations below are intended as a general guide. Any guidance to submitting a complaint set out by the organisation should be followed.
Complaint Structure And Content
We suggest the narrative of the complaint is set out in chronological order and that dates are included when possible. It is understandable to not know exactly when something happened and in that case it would be helpful to include the month or season and the year to assist with establishing a clear timeline.
We also recommend that the client includes everything in the complaint. It is not for the client to know what the practitioner should or should not have done and including everything in the complaint enables the organisation to consider if there are any other breaches which the client has not identified.
We recognise that the complaint may contain very personal and sensitive information. Where possible, we recommend that this information is set out within the complaint, to include all supporting evidence, to ensure the complaint is as comprehensive as possible.
Further, some organisations may refuse to later accept information or supporting documentation that could have been provided at the time the complaint was first submitted.
We recommend that the complaint is drafted using the facts of what has occurred, assumptions of why the practitioner did (or did not) do something should be avoided.
We suggest that the complaint covers the following areas:
- The client’s contact details.
- The practitioner’s contact details, to include employer, if known.
- Brief insight into why the client started to see the practitioner.
- A summary of what occurred with the practitioner.
- A section cross-referencing the practitioner’s conduct to the organisation’s code of ethics.
- Optional, a brief summary of setting out the impact of the practitioner’s conduct.
As noted above, this is a general guide to submitting a complaint and any instructions provided by the organisation the complaint is being submitted to should be followed.
If you have experienced professional abuse or negligent treatment, please do not hesitate to make contact with us for an initial discussion. Initial contact is free of charge and without obligation.