Peter Mitchell – Spare the rod, not the support.

Following a recent survey of its 850 members, the Small Practitioners Association has submitted proposals on developing a better balanced and more acceptable disciplinary process for the English ICA.

Despite its importance, it appears the institute may not have invited participation from those directly involved – defendant members and solicitors.

Contributions from those with relevant experience may thus be thin on the ground.

Those attending recent presentations by the Professional Standards Office, though, were comforted that there is a better grip on case administration – but does that mean the system is fair or appropriate?

Consent orders seem to be an imposed and expedient method of meting out harsh fines plus costs – ‘pay up or else’ appears to be the message. The whole process seems to be a punishment system, when it could incorporate constructive member support and development of the high standards demanded via active counselling and guidance.

Hearing complaints in the adversarial atmosphere of Moorgate Place can be overwhelming. SPA suggests minor complaints be devolved to a lower court – a ‘district hearing’.

The district hearing ‘panel’ would add a representative of the professsional Standards Office and a local member of similar standing to the defendant.

First offences would be discussed, not punished.

If the complaint warranted a hearing by the disciplinary committee, the support member should advise on legal assistance. Only this committee’s findings warrant publication.

What concerns the SPA most is the insensitive approach to the unwitting first offence of otherwise spotless and long-standing members which happens in 85% of complaints against small practitioners.

The cost to defendants of hearings averages #3,400 and is disproportionate to the ‘crime’. The personal wear and tear can be damaging and permanent: is this reasonable?

The SPA hopes Michael Beloff will consider such suggestions, but time will tell whether we live with previous imperfections or adopt a more constructive and sensitive process.

Peter Mitchell is chairman of the Small Practitioners Association.

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