Miss Charlotte E Briggs
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(as amended at the Final Hearing)
During the course of your employment as a Social Worker by with Somerset County Council between January 2012 and February 2016, you:
1. Between November 2015 and January 2016, did not maintain your registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
2. on or around 22 December 2015, attended Court in the capacity of a Social Worker even though you had been de-registered by the HCPC on 6 November 2015.
3. did not maintain adequate records, in that:
a. in relation to Case A, you did not record on AIS (Somerset County Council’s Case Management System):
i. an initial assessment;
ii. a Social Work plan;
iii. any entries in the records in 2014.
b. in relation to Case B, you did not take sufficient action to resolve an issue in relation to the non-compliance with direct payments.
c. in relation to Case C, between 20 December 2013 and 7 December 2014, you did not record an initial assessment and/or a review of this case
d. in relation to Case D, you:
i. between 27 July 2015 and January 2016, did not ensure that Service User D was re-located from a temporary to a permanent placement.
ii. did not record a plan and/or action taken in relation to the re-location of a Service User from a temporary to a permanent placement.
e. in relation to Case E, you did not:
i. record an assessment on AIS.
ii. index your review on AIS.
f. in relation to Case F, you did not:
i. index an 'Understanding You', document on AIS;
ii. upload a witness statement on AIS until 13 February 2015.
4. The matters described in paragraphs 1 - 3 constitute misconduct and / or a lack of competence.
5. By reason of your misconduct and/or lack of competence, your fitness to practise is impaired.
Service & Proceeding in Absence
1. The Panel found that the Notice of Hearing was sent to the Registrant’s HCPC-registered address on 29 August 2017 and the Panel was satisfied there had been good service.
2. The Registrant was not present and Ms Sheridan applied to proceed in her absence. Ms Sheridan submitted that the Registrant was aware of the final hearing and has not requested an adjournment. She referred the Panel to the Notice to Admit Facts, signed by the Registrant on 26 July 2017. The Registrant had also been sent an ID key for the papers and had made no further comment. She has waived her right to attend. Ms Sheridan submitted that there was a public interest in the hearing proceeding and two witnesses were present today to give evidence. Ms Sheridan submitted that the Registrant had chosen to absent herself from the hearing.
3. The Panel heard and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor, and had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note on “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant”. It considered the criteria as outlined in that Practice Note and in the case of GMC v Adeogba  EWCA Civ 162, balancing fairness to the Registrant with fairness to the HCPC and the public interest.
4. The Panel concluded that the Registrant had voluntarily absented herself and waived her right to attend. She had made no request for an adjournment. The Registrant is clearly aware of the final hearing and has chosen not to attend. The Panel determined that the hearing should proceed in the absence of the Registrant. It was in the interests of justice to do so, given the need to protect the public, and it was fair and appropriate to proceed in these circumstances.
Application by HCPC to amend the Allegation
5. In respect of the Allegation, Ms Sheridan made an application to amend the Allegation. The Registrant received Notice of these proposed amendments on 3 July 2017 and had made no further comment. The proposed amendments were also in the final bundle sent to the Registrant. Ms Sheridan submitted that the amendments were to avoid duplication and in other areas the HCPC had not obtained evidence and so no evidence was being offered in respect of those particulars. The other amendments were minor in nature and better clarified the evidence and did not change the allegation or materially alter the case. The Registrant has responded to the amended Allegation in the Notice to Admit Facts.
6. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor as to the proposed amendments. It bore in mind fairness and the interests of justice. The Panel concluded that the proposed amendments did not change the character or gravity of the Allegation and were not unfair or prejudicial to the Registrant. The Registrant was aware of them and she had made no objection. The proposed amendments were fair and appropriate and the Panel granted the application to amend.
7. Ms Sheridan referred the Panel to Rule 10 of the HCPC (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 and sought to have the Witness Statement of DAF admitted as hearsay evidence. She was an important witness. Ms Sheridan referred the Panel to the guidance in NMC v Ogbonna  EWCA Civ 1216 and told the Panel that all reasonable efforts had been made to secure the attendance of the witness, as a Witness Summons had been issued to the witness to seek her attendance to give evidence.
8. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor, who referred it to the Ogbonna case and to the criteria in Thorneycroft v Nursing and Midwifery Council  EWHC 1565 (Admin) regarding hearsay evidence. He reminded the Panel of the importance of fairness in its consideration.
9. The Panel concluded that in all the circumstances, it was appropriate and fair to admit the hearsay evidence of DAF. She was an important witness and the HCPC had clearly taken all reasonable steps to secure her attendance, including the obtaining of a Witness Summons. The Witness Statement was signed and dated by the witness on 23 August 2017. She was the Investigating Officer at Somerset County Council at that time and was a registered Social Worker. The witness was a reliable and direct source of the evidence in her statement, and there was nothing to suggest there was any animosity between her and the Registrant.
10. The Panel considered that whilst the Witness Statement was not the sole or decisive evidence in respect of particular 1 or 2, it was the main evidence in support of particular 3, which was serious. The Panel noted that the Registrant had been given notice of the Witness Statement and she had sent to the HCPC a written response to the allegations which could be tested, to some extent, with the live witnesses. The Registrant, whilst not admitting particular 3, did appear to accept that her record-keeping was not fully up-to-date at all times and offered some explanation.
11. The Panel carefully considered the central importance of fairness; it balanced all the issues and considered the information before it. It determined to admit the hearsay evidence of DAF. The Panel would carefully consider, when it had heard all the evidence, what weight to attach to that evidence, bearing in mind that it was not possible to fully test it at this hearing.
Hearing in Private
12. The Registrant had requested that the Panel deal with the entirety of the hearing in private as a means of protecting her private life. The Panel carefully considered the matters she highlighted and determined that the matters were not central to these proceedings. Bearing in mind the principle of open justice and the HCPTS Practice Note on “Conducting Hearings in Private”, the Panel, having taken advice from the Legal Assessor, determined that only references to any health issues that might arise would be heard in private.
13. At the time of the Allegation, the Registrant was employed as a Social Worker in the Adult Learning Disability Team at Somerset County Council (“the Council”). She worked there between January 2012 and February 2016. Between November 2015 and January 2016, the Registrant failed to maintain her registration with the HCPC and, during that time, the Registrant attended Care Proceedings in Bristol Crown Court in circumstances where she could have been perceived as being there in her capacity as a registered Social Worker.
14. Further concerns regarding the Registrant’s record-keeping and lack of action also emerged and an internal investigation was undertaken at the Council by DAF. It is alleged that the Registrant did not take the appropriate action in a number of cases which lacked social work plans and assessments. Particular 3 of the Allegation related to six service users in the period from 2013 to 2016.
15. The Panel heard from two witnesses:
• EF, the Registrant’s Team Manager at the Council; and
• JM, the Service and Operation Manager for the Learning Disabilities Department at the Council.
16. The Registrant responded to the Allegation and has admitted Particulars 1 and 2 as to the lapse of her HCPC registration. She did not admit any other part of the Allegation.
Witness 1 – EF
17. EF is a Social Work Team Manager at the Council and a former line manager of the Registrant. She took the Oath and confirmed that her witness statement was signed by her and was true to the best of her knowledge and belief. She confirmed she had worked with the Registrant at the Council. She explained to the Panel that as Team Manager she reviewed care management reviews on the “AIS” system, and that documents should be uploaded to AIS within 10 working days.
18. EF told the Panel that the Registrant’s case load was a standard case load and was nothing out of the ordinary taking into account her experience and seniority. She said the Registrant had had periods of sickness but she was not aware at this time that there had been anything else in her life that was affecting her work.
19. By October 2015, EF said the Registrant was aware that there were issues with her recording-keeping but she could not explain why she could not perform effectively in this area of her work.
20. EF explained that the Registrant had been given some support and there had been an improvement in her work as a result. She accepted that the Registrant should not have been given an adult care worker to supervise but the Registrant had not raised concerns in that regard. The Registrant’s case load was later reduced by five cases, with more support from Case Workers in two more. EF said there was not unfortunately much improvement in the Registrant’s work and then she was then absent from work. She explained that there were real work stresses across the whole social work team but that the Registrant’s underperformance in respect of record-keeping was the most problematic.
21. On the failure to renew her registration, EF said the Registrant had known that her attempts to re-register had failed due to there not being sufficient funds in her bank account to meet the direct debit. The Registrant had not raised this with her and EF only became aware of this following a letter from the HCPC. She said she had made it clear to the Registrant at the time that she could not call herself a Social Worker and that it was a serious matter to have let her registration lapse.
22. EF told the Panel that the Registrant attended Court in Bristol at this time, but she had not known at that point that the Registrant was not yet re-registered. EF told the Panel that she would not have allowed her to attend had she known. The Registrant had not been due to give evidence, but she could have been viewed as someone who could have given professional Social Work opinion.
23. In respect of Case B, EF explained that the Registrant should have visited the service user to resolve any issues with non-compliance of direct payments.
24. In response to Panel questions on the issue of inadequate recording, EF said there had been a period of restructuring that had an impact on case work generally across the team and did not explain the Registrant’s issues with the recording of her case work.
25. EF was referred by the Legal Assessor to the Registrant’s written response statement at paragraph 3 about the record-keeping particulars of the Allegation. The Registrant said that one factor was the inadequacy of the administrative support intended to input case records onto AIS. However, EF said that this could not be an explanation for not maintaining case records. That support was solely concerned with the inputting of basic dates and details and did not encompass the broader inputting of information onto the AIS system, which could only be effected by a Social Worker.
Witness 2 – JM
26. JM is a registered Social Worker. He was the Service and Operations Manager for the Learning Disabilities Department at the Council between January 2015 and March 2016, when he retired. He took the Oath and confirmed that his witness statement was signed by him and was true to the best of his knowledge and belief.
27. JM told the Panel that a colleague, TP, had brought to his attention the issues with the Registrant following a period of supervision. There were concerns with timekeeping, absence and record-keeping. He explained that when he met the Registrant, she had expressed concern over the volume of work and the restructuring process. He said the Registrant was very concerned with a particular child’s case she had dealt with previously and felt her ability to concentrate on her work was affected.
28. JM said all the staff were involved in and affected by the restructuring process and the Registrant was no more affected than anyone else. Her case load was not excessive and she had been encouraged to close a number of her cases. JM said that she was adequately supported. The Registrant was referred to the HCPC following the HCPC advising the Council that the Registrant’s registration had lapsed, which was also a breach of the Registrant's employment contract.
29. In reply to the Registrant’s written response to the allegation, JM said that there was administrative support for the Social Workers for some time.
30. Ms Sheridan summarised the evidence and the HCPC’s position in her Closing Submissions. She submitted that the hearsay evidence of DAF should be given weight. The statement from the witness was drafted using the Investigation Report which was dated 8 April 2016, close to the events. She submitted it was therefore a reliable statement. The witness was independent and Ms Sheridan invited the Panel to place weight on the witness statement.
31. Ms Sheridan referred to the relevant case law. She reminded the Panel that the Registrant was an experienced Social Worker, familiar with the requirement to keep accurate records and keep her registration up-to-date. With regard to the statutory grounds, she submitted that misconduct may be the more appropriate ground but that this was a matter for the Panel.
32. As regards the HCPC “Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics” (2012), Ms Sheridan submitted that the evidence showed a breach of the standards 1, 3 and 10. She reminded the Panel that the Registrant failed to volunteer the lack of registration to EF at the time and subsequently attended court as a Social Worker.
33. Ms Sheridan said the Registrant had engaged with the HCPC to a limited extent. She submitted that the Registrant’s insight appeared limited and there was no evidence of remediation. As to the public interest, Ms Sheridan submitted that the Panel should bear in mind the need to uphold proper standards and confidence in the profession and the Regulator.
34. The Panel took the advice of the Legal Assessor and applied the relevant principles. He advised the Panel on the approach to facts and was mindful that the civil burden of proof, the ‘balance of probabilities’, rests on the HCPC, and that the Registrant need prove nothing. On the issue of the alleged grounds of lack of competence and misconduct, the Legal Assessor referred the Panel to the guidance in Holton v General Medical Council  EWHC 2960, Calhaem v GMC  EWHC 2606 and Roylance v GMC (No 2)  1 AC 311. On fitness to practice, the Legal Assessor referred the Panel to the HCPC Practice Note on “Finding that Fitness to Practice is ‘Impaired’” and to the helpful guidance in CHRE v NMC & Grant  EWHC 927(Admin). He reminded the Panel that on grounds, and on impairment, there was no burden of proof and those were a matter for its own professional judgement. The Legal Assessor stressed to the Panel the central importance of protecting the public and the public interest.
Decision on Facts
35. The Panel carefully considered the live evidence, the documents before it and the submissions from Ms Sheridan. The Panel found the two witnesses credible and reliable. They were fair and balanced in their evidence. Both gave evidence in response to the Registrant’s written response to particular 3 of the Allegation.
36. The Panel considered the Witness Statement of DAF. She was independent and did the Investigation required of her by her employer. There was nothing to indicate that DAF was unfair or biased in her approach. The Witness Statement did appear to have been based on her original Investigation and was signed off by her on 23 August 2017; however, this was some 14 months on from the time of her Investigation. In assessing what weight to put on her evidence, the Panel was mindful of two issues: firstly, the Panel noted that by the time of her Witness Statement, DAF could not access some of the records she had relied upon in her Investigation Report as she had left the Council; secondly, much of the primary evidence used in the Investigation was not made available to the Panel. Consequently, neither the Investigation Report nor the Witness Statement could be tested. There were significant gaps in the documentary evidence that the Panel could not explore and clarify with DAF, or any other witness.
37. Accordingly, the Panel concluded that weight would be attached to the Witness Statement only so far as there was another source of evidence in support. Where there was no evidence to support the evidence of DAF, the Panel attached little weight to the evidence in the Witness Statement.
Particulars 1 and 2 – Proved
38. The Panel noted that the Registrant admitted not maintaining her HCPC registration and her subsequent attendance at court as a Social Worker whilst de-registered. It noted her explanation. The Panel accepted EF’s evidence that the Registrant had not disclosed the lapse in re-registration to her and, despite discussions about the seriousness of this, the Registrant had nonetheless attended Court whilst de-registered. The Panel found particulars 1 and 2 proved.
Particulars 3(a)(i), 3(a)(ii) and 3(a)(iii) – Not Proved
39. In relation to Case A, the Panel was provided with no documentary evidence from the AIS system as to whether these records were, or were not, maintained. There was no other evidence in the records before the Panel. The only evidence was that of DAF, to which the Panel attached little weight as the Panel could not to any extent test the evidence. The Panel found that what evidence there was did not cross the required threshold to prove these sub-particulars on the balance of probabilities. The Panel therefore found these sub-particulars not proved.
Particular 3(b) – Proved
40. The appendices to the Investigation Report showed the email correspondence referring to a non-compliance issue and linking this to the Registrant’s need to act upon, and resolve, the issue of direct payments. EF also gave clear evidence about the need for the Registrant to take action on this issue in respect of Case B. The Panel found this sub-particular proved.
Particular 3(c) – Not Proved
41. In relation to Case C, the appendices to the Investigation Report in the bundle appeared to be incomplete as they started at a point denoted as “D”, implying, at the least, the existence of preceding sections. In any event, it was not clear whether or not the document was the Initial Assessment. The Panel was not in a position to test this very limited, ambiguous evidence or to enquire further, and so found this sub-particular not proved.
Particular 3(d)(i) and 3(d)(ii) – Not Proved
42. In relation to Case D, the documentation was incomplete and it was not clear where the obligation on the Registrant to ensure the service user’s relocation from temporary to permanent accommodation arose. There was a suggestion that accommodation was an issue, but the documentation was not clear or consistent. It was not clear what, if anything, was agreed between the service user and the Registrant, nor whether the Registrant had been given a direct instruction by her manager in relation to this matter. There was no evidence of a Care Plan before the Panel, or of any action taken. The Panel found these sub-particulars not proved.
Particular 3(e) – Not Proved
43. In relation to Case E, there were no dates in the sub-particular and whilst in the bundle there was a screenshot showing a record of inputted documents in the AIS system it was not clear what the relevance of that was. Abbreviations appeared but were not explained in the evidence. The Panel found this sub-particular not proved.
Particular 3(f)(i) – Not Proved
44. In relation to Case F, the Panel was referred to a screenshot of uploads to the AIS system. There was no evidence of what the listed uploads included. The Panel did not know whether the document “Understanding You” may have been part of another document; for example, the Panel did not know if a “Children and Family Assessment” might include the “Understanding You” document. The Panel found this particular not proved.
Particular 3(f)(ii) – Proved
45. As a matter of fact, the documents in the bundle and the Registrant’s Case Notes show an uploaded witness statement on the AIS system on 13 February 2015. Logically it was apparent that such a document was not uploaded until that date and so the Panel found this sub-particular proved.
Decision on Grounds
46. Having found particulars 1, 2, 3(b), and 3(f)(ii) proved, the Panel went on to consider the statutory grounds of misconduct and/or lack of competence. The Panel exercised its own professional judgement and accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice. It bore in mind the relevant case law, including the case of Roylance.
47. In respect of particular 1, the Registrant failed to renew her registration. The Panel would expect a Social Worker in her situation to immediately notify her employer of her professional status. This would allow the employer to take the necessary action to protect itself and service users. The Registrant did not notify her employer of her de-registration and it was only when the HCPC wrote to the Council that this matter was highlighted. This conduct was serious and reckless and it lacked professional integrity. The Registrant’s actions fell far below the standard expected of a registered Social Worker. The Panel considered her actions to be deplorable.
48. In relation to particular 2, the Registrant’s attendance at Court whilst de-registered, as well as placing service users at risk of harm, placed the Council at risk of serious reputational damage. The Panel considered the Registrant’s conduct in this matter was deplorable. The Panel determined that the Registrant’s conduct fell seriously below the proper standards to be expected of a registered Social Worker and amounted to misconduct.
49. In respect of sub-particular 3(b), the Panel determined that this was serious and had a potential to cause harm to the service user and/or their relative. The issue of non-compliance with direct payments should have been addressed promptly by the Registrant because of the serious implications involving HMRC. She failed to do this for several months. She failed to follow instructions to meet with the service user’s relative. This is a significant matter and the Panel determined that the Registrant’s conduct and failure to take sufficient action fell seriously below the standards to be expected of a Social Worker and amounted to misconduct.
50. In relation to particular 3(f)(ii), the Panel determined that this failure by the Registrant did not amount to either misconduct or lack of competence.
51. In considering the statutory ground of lack of competence, the Panel noted that the Registrant was an experienced Social Worker and it had no evidence to suggest that she lacked competence.
Decision on Impairment
52. In considering its decision on impairment, the Panel was mindful that the purpose of these proceedings is not to punish the Registrant but to protect the public. The Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and exercised its own professional judgement. It considered the guidance in the relevant HCPTS Practice Note and in the case of Grant, and was mindful of the central importance of protecting the public and the wider the public interest, including public confidence in, and the reputation of, the profession and the Regulator.
53. The Registrant has not fully engaged with these proceedings, in that she has chosen not to attend or to give evidence. As a result of this, the Panel has no evidence of the Registrant’s current circumstances. It has therefore relied on her written response to the Allegation to assess her level of insight into her failures.
54. The Panel found the Registrant’s written response revealed a lack of insight, particularly in respect of her attendance at Court whilst de-registered. She makes some qualified admissions and attempts to explain some of her actions. The Panel found little evidence of the necessary and appropriate level of insight or remorse by the Registrant, and little recognition by her of the seriousness of her conduct.
55. The Panel noted the Registrant’s comments about her health issues in her written response, but it had no evidence of those issues, nor any evidence of any connection between them and the Allegation.
56. The Panel had no evidence of any remediation. The Panel has seen nothing to indicate that any steps have been taken to remediate her practice and there is no evidence of any steps taken by her to keep her practice up-to-date. The Registrant has not demonstrated that she understands the serious implications of her actions both upon the Council and on service users.
57. The Panel has found that the Registrant has, in the past, acted so as to bring the profession into disrepute, has placed service users at risk and has breached a fundamental tenet of her profession. The Panel can have no confidence that the Registrant has addressed her misconduct and developed insight and strategies that might reduce the risk of repeating this conduct in the future. In all the circumstances, the Panel consider that the Registrant presents a high risk of repetition of her misconduct in the future.
58. The Panel had regard to the critically important public interest considerations. The findings on particulars 1 and 2 are breaches of a fundamental tenet of the profession. The Registrant was not a registered Social Worker when she attended Court and she knew that was the case. The consequences of that conduct could have had a very damaging effect on her employer and public confidence in the profession. Given the misconduct found, the Panel determined that it would undermine public trust and confidence in the reputation of the profession, and the regulatory process, if a finding of current impairment was not made in this case. Further, there is a need to declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour.
59. Accordingly, the Panel finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.
Decision on Sanction
60. In considering the appropriate sanction, the Panel had regard to its earlier findings of misconduct. The Panel was mindful of the need to act proportionately and carefully considered the HCPC “Indicative Sanctions Policy”.
61. The Panel considered the aggravating and mitigating features. The Panel considered it was an aggravating factor that the Registrant’s misconduct in respect of Particular 1 and 2 was particularly reckless and breached fundamental tenets of the profession. The Panel also considered that the limited insight and lack of any remediation by the Registrant was an aggravating factor.
62. The Panel considered that the Registrant’s admissions and lack of any previous fitness to practise referrals to the HCPC in respect of the Registrant were mitigating factors.
63. In view of the seriousness of the case, to take no further action would not be appropriate. It would not address the seriousness of the deplorable conduct and misconduct found proved. Further, this would not be sufficient to protect the public, to maintain confidence in the profession and the regulatory process, or to uphold and declare proper standards.
64. The Panel then went on to consider a Caution Order. A Caution Order is intended to deal with isolated lapses of a minor nature with a low risk of repetition and where insight is developed. The Registrant’s misconduct is not isolated and is not of a minor nature. She has limited insight. Accordingly, a Caution Order would not protect the public or uphold proper standards of conduct.
65. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The Panel has no information about the Registrant’s current circumstances. There is nothing to suggest that the Registrant is willing or able to comply with conditions. In any case, the misconduct found proved and the high risk of repetition identified by the Panel cannot be addressed by conditions. In these circumstances, the Panel could not formulate workable, realistic and proportionate conditions of practice.
66. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. The Panel has found that the Registrant breached a fundamental tenet of her profession and her conduct was reckless. She has shown limited insight and appears to have taken no steps to remediate her practice. A Suspension Order will protect the public from the risk of repetition identified and will also mark the seriousness of the misconduct found.
67. The Panel determined that a Suspension Order is proportionate and is the least restrictive sanction necessary to uphold and declare proper standards, act as a deterrent and maintain confidence in the profession and the Regulator.
68. The Panel has determined that a 12-month Suspension Order is required to reflect the nature and gravity of the misconduct found proved and the level of risk identified. A 12-month Suspension Order will also give the Registrant time to reflect and develop her insight and to re-engage with the HCPC.
69. The Panel determined that in all these circumstances, a Striking Off Order is not, at this stage, proportionate or appropriate. The Panel determined that a Striking Off Order would go further than is necessary to protect the public and to uphold the public interest.
70. The Suspension Order will be reviewed before its expiry. The Panel would encourage the Registrant to engage with the HCPC. A reviewing panel may be assisted by:
• A reflective piece demonstrating insight into the conduct that led to these proceedings;
• Evidence that the Registrant has kept her professional knowledge up-to-date;
• Any relevant reference or testimonials for paid or unpaid work.