Miss Amber N Okonji
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(As amended on day 1 of the hearing, 23 April 2019)
While registered as a Social Worker and employed with Essex County Council, between 2014 and 2017, you:
1. Did not maintain service user confidentiality in that you allowed Person A to access and/or use a laptop provided to you by Essex County Council, which contained service user information.
2. Produced and/or allowed another person to use your work laptop to produce counterfeit documents.
3. Submitted and/or allowed another person to submit those counterfeit documents to the Student Loans Company to support student finance applications.
4. On dates between February 2015 and February 2016, received approximately 10 payments from the Student Loans Company into your bank accounts:
a. which you knew or had reason to believe that you were not entitled to receive;
b. and did not raise queries with and/or inform the Student Loans Company that you had received money in your account;
5. Your actions described in particulars 2, and/or 3 and/or 4 were dishonest;
6. Your actions described in particulars 1-5 amount to misconduct.
7. By reason of your misconduct, your fitness to practise is impaired.
Application to amend the Allegation
1. Ms Hollos, on behalf of the HCPC, applied to amend the Allegation in three ways. Firstly, to amend the number of payments in Particular 4 to 10 instead of 12, secondly to remove the words “and/” in Particular 4a so that the word “or” remained, and thirdly, to add in the words “and/ or” and “or” in Particular 5 so that any one or more of the Particulars referred to in 5 could be the basis of a dishonesty finding.
2. Mr Walker, on behalf of the Registrant, did not object to the application.
3. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was satisfied that the amendments were minor in nature, and did not cause the Registrant any prejudice. The Panel was satisfied that it was fair to allow the application.
Application to hear an HCPC witness by telephone
4. At the outset of the hearing, the HCPC expressed its intention that the witness statement of Mr 3 would be read in the absence of Mr 3. Ms Hollos informed the Panel that no objection had been made to that course of action by the Registrant’s legal representatives until the first day of the hearing and that she was not aware until the first day of the hearing that the evidence was not agreed. Ms Hollos informed the Panel that Mr 3 was available to give evidence by telephone on the first day of the hearing, (although he was not available to attend in person) and therefore he could be cross-examined.
5. Mr Walker’s position was that he did not object to the witness statement being read, but that he challenged some of the evidence contained in it, and would not require the witness to attend but would make submissions as to the weight to be given to it as hearsay. Mr Walker objected to Mr 3 giving his evidence by telephone, on the basis that the Registrant had prepared her case on the understanding that Mr 3 would not be called to give evidence, that the Panel would be unable to assess his demeanour, and that the general rule is that witnesses should give evidence in person.
6. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Registrant has had the hearing bundle in good time in advance of the hearing, and only objected to some of the evidence in Mr 3’s witness statement on the first day of the hearing. Mr 3 can give his evidence by telephone. The Panel was of the view that if there is challenge to Mr 3’s evidence, a fair solution would be to hear him by telephone so that the Registrant can ask him questions. The Panel therefore decided that it would be fair and proportionate for Mr 3 to give his evidence by telephone.
7. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. She began her first role as a Social Worker with the Assessment and Intervention Department at Essex County Council (the Council) in 2013 until 2016. The Registrant is alleged to have allowed Person A, to access her work laptop, thereby breaching service user confidentiality. She is also charged with either producing counterfeit documents on her laptop and submitting them to the Student Loan Company (SLC), or allowing those documents to be produced and submitted, and then receiving student loan payments to which she knew she was not entitled.
Decision on facts:
8. The Panel read the HCPC’s hearing bundle, and heard evidence from Mr 1, Fraud Analyst within the Counter Fraud Services Department of the Student Loans Company (SLC), Ms 2, Counter Fraud Manager in the Counter Fraud Team at the Council. The Panel heard evidence by telephone from Mr 3, Head of Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigations in the Digital Forensics Unit at Thurrock Council.
Submission of no case to answer
9. At the close of the HCPC’s case, Mr Walker made submissions that there was no case to answer in respect of the entire Allegation. Ms Hollos submitted that the HCPC had presented a case to answer in respect of all of the factual Allegations.
10. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the case of R v Galbraith  73 Cr. App. R. 124, and referred to the HCPTS Practice Note entitled “‘Half-time’ submissions”.
11. The Panel took into account the evidence of Ms 2 which was that the Registrant was provided with a laptop by the Council, which was the Council’s property, for the purposes of undertaking her work. Ms 2’s evidence was that there were two levels of security on the laptop: an initial password which allowed the laptop to be logged onto; as well as providing access to the Outlook email system and the shared drive. While Ms 2 could not be sure as to whether the first level of security gave the Registrant access to her case files, her evidence was that a second level of security, requiring the entry of a password, would give access to confidential case files. The Panel also took into account the Registrant’s answers to questions asked by Ms 2, when interviewed on 30 June 2016, which were that she gave Person A access to her laptop, including giving them her password, so that they could access the internet. She also confirmed that she worked on her cases on her work laptop at home.
12. The Panel decided that there was sufficient evidence at this stage to support the Allegation that the Registrant allowed Person A to access and use the laptop. Further, there is evidence that the laptop afforded access to service user information. The Panel was of the view that the ordinary and natural meaning of the word “contained” in this Particular included a means to access to such information, as well as referring to information physically stored in the laptop. It was also clear to the Panel that failing to maintain service user confidentiality, as alleged, did not necessary entail an actual breach of that confidentiality.
13. The Panel therefore found that there is a case to answer in respect of Particular 1.
14. It is the HCPC’s case that the counterfeit documents referred to in this Particular are four letters written purportedly in support of Person’s A and Person C’s student loan applications. They are all written on the Council’s headed paper and bear similarities in format. Ms 2’s evidence was that headed paper was accessible on the laptop.
15. In her investigatory interview dated 30 June 2016, the Registrant denied writing the letters. However, the evidence of Mr 3 was that three of the letters were found on the Registrant’s laptop. Mr 3’s evidence is that two of the letters (Exhibits GS10 and GS13) passed by email between the Registrant’s Council email account and Person A’s email account. In addition, Mr 3’s evidence is that the Event Logs display a prompt within Microsoft Word asking whether the user (albeit it is not known who the author was) wished to save changes made to GS10 and GS13. The Panel formed the view that such a prompt was a clear indication that at least one version of the document had been created on the laptop.
16. The Panel did not consider that Mr 3’s error mixing up his references to Persons A and C, which he candidly set out in his email of 16 April 2019, cast doubt on the reliability of the rest of his evidence, because it was an error in labelling, rather than an error in his substantive findings.
17. The evidence of Mr 1 and Ms 2 was that the letters are counterfeit in the sense that they purport to be in support of service users known to the Council, but who in fact are not known to the Council; those who have signed them are not and have not been Council employees, and contact details are incorrect.
18. The Panel therefore decided that there is a case to answer that the Registrant either produced or allowed another to use the work laptop to produce the counterfeit documents.
19. The Panel took into account the evidence of Mr 1 that the Student Loan Company (SLC) received the counterfeit documents in question. As stated in respect of Particular 2, there is evidence that three of the four documents were found on the Registrant’s laptop.
20. The Panel therefore was of the view that at this stage there was sufficient evidence that the Registrant either herself submitted the documents to the SLC or allowed another to submit them to the SLC to support student loan applications.
Particular 4a and 4b
21. The evidence of Mr 1 is that 10 payments were made into the Registrant’s bank account over a period of about a year, with each amount ranging between approximately £1000 and £2000. The evidence of Mr 1 was that the Registrant was not herself entitled to receive a student loan. When questioned about receipt of the amounts in an investigation meeting on 13 July 2016, the Registrant accepted that she knew about the amounts and gave a number of explanations as to why she did not question the amounts or raise them with Person A. Taking into account the explanations as to why the amounts were deposited into her account, the Panel considered there remains evidence, for example from Mr 1, that she was not entitled to receive the student loan payments, and there is evidence from which it could be inferred that she knew that she was not entitled to receive the loan payments.
22. Further, considering the evidence of Mr 1, as well as the evidence as a whole, including the Registrant’s admissions in interview on 13 July 2016 that she did not raise queries about the receipt of the amounts, there is a case to answer that the Registrant did not raise queries with, or inform the SLC, that she had received the money in her account.
23. The Panel therefore decided that there is a case to answer in respect of Particular 4a and 4b.
24. Whether the Registrant was dishonest in respect of her actions as alleged in relation to Particulars 2, 3 and/ or 4 depends upon her state of mind. There is a case to answer in respect of Particulars 2, 3 and 4 which are Allegations relating to counterfeit documents and the receipt of monies to which the Registrant was not entitled. In light of that evidence referred to above, the Panel decided that there is a case to answer with regard to the Registrant’s dishonest intention as alleged.
Application for an adjournment
25. After the close of the Registrant’s evidence, and at the beginning of Day 3 of the hearing, which was the penultimate day of the hearing, the Chair, on behalf of the Panel, raised a matter of evidence with the parties. The Chair referred to the evidence of the Registrant which was that Person A had previously expressed to her a willingness to corroborate her evidence for the purpose of these proceedings. The Chair indicated that while hearings are generally in public, hearings can move into private if the “interests of justice” (as referred to in Rule 10(1)(a) of the 2003 Procedure Rules) merit doing so. The Chair stated that moving into private may be possible and would potentially address the issue of Person A’s self-incrimination as evidence or information heard in private. Evidence or information heard in private cannot be disclosed or discussed outside the hearing room. Mr Walker asked for more time to consider his position in light of this indication.
26. Having been afforded a break in proceedings to consider his position, Mr Walker asked for an adjournment to allow him more time to contact Person A because the Registrant would like to call them as a witness. He stated that attempts had been made to contact Person A by telephone and email in the interim, however no response had been received.
27. Ms Hollos objected to the application for an adjournment, and submitted that an adjournment would not be in the interests of justice, due to the delay caused to the proceedings, and the hearing would not conclude within the listed time. In addition, she highlighted the lack of a cogent or persuasive reason why this option of calling Person A to give their evidence in private and not been explored earlier by the Registrant, and also expressed doubt as to the weight to be given to Person A’s evidence if they were to admit dishonest behaviour. Ms Hollos also submitted that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to hear Person A’s evidence in private as any admissions of dishonesty should be properly heard in public, and the police’s previous decision not to take action may have been based on a lack of evidence.
28. The Panel indicated to the parties that in its view it would be reasonable and fair to allow more time during Day 3 of the hearing for Mr Walker to attempt to establish contact with Person A. The Panel also indicated that it may well be willing to agree to hear Person A’s evidence in private if they were called to give evidence.
29. Mr Walker confirmed that he had previously had a conversation with Person A, before the hearing began, in which he did discuss with Person A the potential implications of self-incrimination if they gave evidence, and that Person A’s then decision not to attend was influenced by those implications. Mr Walker confirmed that he had not given consideration to Person A’s evidence being given in private.
30. After a short adjournment, Mr Walker informed the Panel that he had made contact with Person A who was prepared to attend to give evidence on the basis that it would be heard in private. However, Person A was not available to attend in the remaining two days allocated for the hearing, and they would be abroad for the following three weeks.
31. Ms Hollos raised further objections as to hearing Person A’s evidence in private. She submitted that the protection afforded to Person A was against the interests of justice as they would be protected from facing repercussions in the context of serious Allegations which caused a loss to the Student Loan Company (SLC). Further, the police decision not to proceed in respect of the fraud was subject to potential further review. Ms Hollos submitted that Person A was in effect holding the Panel and the Registrant “to ransom” by only giving evidence if it were to be heard in private. Ms Hollos further submitted Person A could invoke their right not to incriminate themselves by refusing to answer questions even if their evidence was heard in private, and therefore hearing Person A in private was not justified. Ms Hollos submitted that weighing the competing factors, there was a significant public interest in ensuring evidence about the dishonesty was heard in public so that the public could understand the evidence and how the Panel eventually came to a decision on the facts.
32. The Panel took into account all the factors put before it. It took into account the HCPTS Practice Notes entitled “Conducting Hearings in Private” and “Postponement and Adjournment of Proceedings”.
33. The Panel needed to first decide whether to adjourn the proceedings. Secondly, if it decided to adjourn, the Panel needed to decide whether Person A’s evidence should be heard in private.
34. The Panel took into account that the Registrant is facing serious Allegations of dishonesty which, if proved, place her at a real risk of being struck off the HCPC register. Based on the Registrant’s evidence, the evidence which Person A will give is likely to be relevant and may corroborate the Registrant’s evidence. The Panel took into account the public interest in preventing delay, and took into account that the option of hearing Person A in private had not been considered. However, the Panel balanced these factors with the potential significance of the evidence to the Registrant’s case, and her ability to defend herself, and decided that the fair and proportionate decision would be to allow the adjournment.
35. The Panel next decided whether Person A’s evidence should be heard in private. The Panel noted the public interest in having admissions of dishonesty in public. However, the Panel placed greater weight on the importance of the evidence for the Registrant’s defence in light of the serious allegations against her, as well as Person A’s willingness to attend to give evidence being predicated on it being heard in private. The Panel therefore decided, when weighing up the interests of justice, that the balance lay with hearing Person A’s evidence in private.
36. The Panel therefore decided to adjourn the hearing and to hear Person A’s evidence in private.
Decision on Facts:
37. The Panel was of the view that all three HCPC witnesses were clear, credible and consistent in their evidence. There was no indication that any had a motive to misrepresent the facts which they spoke to.
38. The Panel read the Registrant’s bundle, included a written statement from her, as well as references attesting to her honesty and integrity. The Registrant also gave evidence to the Panel.
39. The Panel heard evidence from Person A.
40. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was aware that the burden of proof rests entirely with the HCPC. The Registrant does not need to prove her innocence of the Allegations. The standard of proof which the HCPC must meet is the civil standard, namely the balance of probabilities.
41. The Panel took into account the Registrant’s good character in relation to both the issues of her credibility as well as her propensity to act as alleged.
42. The Registrant appeared clear in aspects of her evidence, with good recall, but the Panel was of the view that at times when there were aspects of her evidence which could not be explained easily she stated that she could not remember or did not know and this undermined her credibility. For example, her evidence was that she did not know that Person A had opened a NatWest savings account for her. However, she was unable to explain this lack of knowledge despite her evidence that she checked her current account online and using the mobile telephone application. Her current account showed multiple transfers of money passing from her savings account to her current account. Other aspects of her evidence were inconsistent. For example, in her first investigation meeting on 30 June 2016 with her employer, she denied knowing who Person B is, Person B being one of the people to whom fraudulently obtained student loan monies was paid. However, in the disciplinary meeting on 17 August 2016 she stated they were a family friend. In cross examination she stated: that, she did not know them; that they were a family friend; she did not know them that well, and then stated that she did not know them. In answer to Panel questions, she stated Person B was Person A’s family friend and not hers and that she did not know them. When challenged in cross examination she said she did not know Person B that well.
43. With regard to Person A, the Panel took into account that they waived their privilege against self-incrimination by giving incriminating evidence about themselves. Acknowledging that Person A’s evidence was self-incriminatory and that this may mean that it should be given significant weight when assessing Person A’s credibility, the Panel found when considering the detail of parts of their evidence they were inconsistent with documentary evidence as well as oral evidence which was clear and consistent. These observations are developed within the body of the Panel’s findings. The Panel was of the view that Person A was credible in respect of parts of their evidence. However, the Panel found other aspects of Person A’s evidence were not plausible and were not consistent with documentary evidence and this caused those parts of their evidence to lack credibility.
44. The Panel took into account the evidence of Ms 2 in relation to the Registrant’s employment at the Council.
45. The Panel therefore found the stem proved.
46. The Panel took into account the evidence of Ms 2 which was that during her interview with the Registrant on 30 June 2016, the Registrant admitted that she gave Person A the password to her work laptop so that they could use it. The Registrant also accepted this in her evidence to the Panel. Ms 2’s evidence was that the password would provide Person A with access to the ECC network, including shared drives or files and Outlook, which the Registrant used for work emails. In her evidence, the Registrant accepted that Person A would have access to these.
47. The Registrant also accepted that work emails would contain confidential information about service users.
48. It was submitted on behalf of the Registrant that simply giving Person A access to the laptop did not in itself breach service user confidentiality, and that actual disclosure of third party of service user information had to be proved. The Panel did not accept this contention. The act of providing access to such service user information was in itself sufficient to result in a situation where the Registrant “did not maintain service user confidentiality”, considering the ordinary and natural meaning of the words in Particular 1. This is because the need to maintain confidentiality required the prevention from any possible way of accessing such information in the first place. Therefore failing to maintain service user confidentiality did not necessarily entail an actual disclosure of confidential information.
49. The Panel therefore found this Particular proved.
50. The HCPC’s case was put on the basis that the counterfeit documents referred to in this Particular were four student supporting letters, three of which relate to Person A and which are dated 18 November 2014, 8 November 2015 and 10 December 2015 and one of which relates to Person C which is dated 29 September 2015. They are drafted to incorporate an Essex County Council letter header, purported contact details at the Council and reference numbers. Three of the four were purportedly electronically signed by a social worker in the name of MW and one was electronically signed by JC.
51. Ms 1 confirmed that no social worker of either name was known to the Council, and that the reference numbers on the letters are not known to the Council. Person A admitted that he fabricated the documents. He admitted that he created the documents by using another document he found on the Registrant’s laptop as a template, with the Council’s header and details and that Mofya Wembley was the name of his previous social worker at Redbridge, and that Julia Clarke was a fabricated name. The Panel was of the view that this part of his evidence was clear and consistent and detailed.
52. The Panel took into account Mr 3’s evidence that three of the supporting letters were found on the hard drive of the Registrant’s laptop and that two were accessible via shortcuts on her laptop.
53. However, in light of Person A’s clear evidence, and the lack of any direct evidence that the Registrant herself produced the documents, the Panel could not be satisfied that the Registrant produced them.
54. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant allowed Person A to use her laptop to produce them. In this regard, the Panel agreed with the parties’ interpretation of the meaning of that Particular, in order for her to be found to have allowed this, she needed to know of the nature of the documents.
55. The Panel took into account the evidence of Mr 3 which referred to the existence of three of the documents on her laptop, as well as the evidence of Person A, which the Panel has already found credible, that they created the documents on the Registrant’s laptop. This was a laptop which the Registrant regularly used for her work with the Council. The Panel also took into the account the evidence of a number of emails involving the Registrant which on the face of them attached some supporting letters, as follows:
i. an email dated 21 November 2014 which is from the Registrant’s work email address to her personal email address, which has as its subject “Person A supporting letter” and attaches a Word document with the same name.
ii. an email dated 15 June 2015 from the Registrant’s work email address to Person A which has its subject “Person A supporting letter” and attached a Word document with the same name;
iii. an email dated 30 September 2015 from the Registrant’s work email address to Person A which has as its subject “Person C letter” and attaches a Word document with the same name.
56. The Registrant stated in her evidence that she attached the documents and sent them to her personal email in order to be printed. She was consistent in that evidence and repeated it a number of times. The Panel decided that it was more likely than not that the Registrant sent those emails to herself and to Person A.
57. In addition, the Registrant’s evidence was that when she printed out the attachments at a printing shop, she never looked at the printed material, and simply asked the shop to place the documents in an envelope for Person A. Her evidence made clear that the requests for printing were made on a number of occasions. The Panel could not be satisfied on the balance of probabilities that she never looked at the documents. On the balance of probabilities she become aware of the nature of the letters from 21 November 2014 onwards when she attached the supporting letter which she later printed. The Panel found that from that point in time onwards there is evidence that she knowingly allowed Person A to use her work laptop to produce the subsequent counterfeit documents, because on the balance of probabilities she became aware of their nature, namely that they were counterfeit. On the balance of probabilities she read them and was clearly aware that the Council which she worked for had not written them. In this regard the Panel, taking into account the Registrant’s evidence that she herself sent emails, decided on the balance of probabilities that it was she who also sent the supporting letters to Person A’s email address on 15 June and 30 September 2015.
58. The Panel therefore found this Particular proved.
59. The Panel took into account the evidence which it considered in respect of Particular 2. There was no direct evidence before the Panel that the Registrant herself submitted the supporting letters to the SLC. In this regard, the Panel also did consider the email dated 20 January 2016 from Person A to the Registrant’s work email address, with the subject “Part 2”, and attaching pdf documents entitled “utility Person C” and “Person B statement (1)” as well as a Word document entitled “customer reference number”. The body of the email contained a request to send the documents to the “Discretionary Payments Team”. It was contended by the HCPC that this was evidence that the Registrant submitted these documents to SLC. However, none of these attachments on their face were the counterfeit documents referred to in Particular 3.
60. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant allowed another person to submit them to the SLC. The only direct evidence about who submitted them is that of Person A and they were clear and consistent in this regard. The Panel considered whether the Registrant could in fact “allow” them to submit the documents to the SLC. Interpreting the word “allow” in its ordinary and natural meaning in the context of the meaning of the Particular, the Panel decided that it requires a degree of control. The Registrant had no control over the actions of Person A, and simply by virtue of becoming aware of the nature of the documents, this did not mean that she allowed Person A to submit them.
61. Therefore this Particular is found not proved.
Particular 4 – the stem
62. The Panel took into account the evidence of Mr 1 that approximately ten payments from the SLC were made into the Registrant’s current account, and took into account the evidence that her account was recorded with the SLC as the bank account of Persons B and D.
63. The Registrant initially denied during the ECC investigation that the NatWest account into which the payments were made belonged to her. The Registrant in her evidence to the Panel did not dispute that the payments were made into her account.
64. On the basis of the evidence before it, the Panel found proved that payments were made into her bank account on their behalf.
65. The Registrant accepted in her evidence that she was aware of payments coming into her account but that she believed that they were related to Person A’s student loan to which she thought they were entitled, and she had agreed to allow those payments to be made into her bank account on their behalf. She also stated that she thought some payments were related to their car rental company and other financial interests which they had.
66. The Panel considered whether she knew or had reason to believe she was not entitled to receive those payments. While there is no evidence that the Registrant made any direct financial gain from the monies received, the Panel has already found that from 18 November 2014, she was aware of the nature of the counterfeit letters. In addition, there are multiple payments into her account from Persons A, B as well as payments out to what was, on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant’s savings account. The Registrant said that she only recalled using one bank account at the time; her NatWest current account. She did not recall ever having a savings account. The Registrant asserted that she did not know that Person A had opened this savings account. This is in contrast to what Person A told the Panel. The Panel has already stated earlier in this decision that this contention is implausible. There were numerous payments in and out of her current account. The Registrant admitted in evidence that she checked her bank account and could see monies coming in and going out of it but thought that this was in connection with Person A’s luxury car business. She said she did not question the monies coming into the account for Persons B and C. It is not credible that the Registrant would not connect at least some of them to SLC payments in relation to which the Panel has already found she knew an application had been made to the SLC using counterfeit documents. On the balance of probabilities she knew that the monies had been obtained by means of those documents.
67. On that basis, the Panel was satisfied that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant knew she was not entitled to receive the payments on behalf of Person A.
68. The Panel therefore found Particular 4(a) proved.
69. The Panel took into account the evidence of Mr 1.
70. The Registrant accepted that she did not raise queries with or inform the SLC about the receipt of the student loan monies into her account, her evidence being that she thought she was entitled to receive the monies on behalf of Person A. Person A said that Persons B and C needed a bank account for receipt of their Student Loan payments until they opened their own account. As a result there were, multiple payments from the SLC into her account. The Registrant stated that she did not question the monies coming in in respect of Persons B and C. Her assertion that these monies belonged to Person A is therefore implausible.
71. The Panel therefore found Particular 4(b) proved.
Particular 5 in respect of Particulars 2 and 4(a) and 4(b)
72. The Panel reminded itself of its reasoning in relation to Particular 2. It has found that the Registrant allowed Person A to use her laptop to produce counterfeit documents from 18 November 2014 onwards. Further, in respect of Particular 4(a) and (b) she received student loan monies into her account, and did not raise queries or inform the SLC, knowing that the monies had been obtained by means of counterfeit supporting letters. With regard to her state of mind and her knowledge of the fraudulent method by which the student loan monies were obtained, the Panel was satisfied that her conduct as found proved in relation to Particulars 2 and 4(a) and (b) was dishonest by applying the objective standards of ordinary decent people.
73. The Panel therefore found this Particular proved.
Decision on the Statutory Ground:
74. The Panel took into account the submissions of Ms Hollos that the facts found proved constitute misconduct. Mr Walker’s position on behalf of the Registrant was that it is difficult to argue that dishonesty is not misconduct and he therefore made no submissions as to misconduct.
75. In considering whether the facts found proved constitute misconduct, the Panel was aware that there is no burden of proof at this stage and that misconduct is a matter for its own professional judgment. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the case of Roylance v GMC (No. 2)  AC 311.
76. The Panel was aware that a breach of professional standards such as those contained in the HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics (“the Standards”) is not necessarily in itself determinative of whether there was misconduct.
77. The Panel was of the view that the Registrant’s conduct fell below the following standards:
HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics (2016)
5. Respect confidentiality
5.1 You must treat information about service users as confidential.
6. Manage risk
Identify and minimise risk
6.1 You must take all reasonable steps to reduce the risk of harm to service users, carers and colleagues as far as possible.
6.2 You must not do anything, or allow someone else to do anything, which could put the health or safety of a service user, carer or colleague at unacceptable risk.
9. Be honest and trustworthy
Personal and professional behaviour
9.1 You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession.
10. Keep records of your work
Keep records secure
10.3 You must keep records secure by protecting them from loss, damage or inappropriate access.
78. The Panel considered that the Registrant had breached the standards set out above and that her breaches were serious.
79. The Registrant gave Person A access to her work laptop which led to Person A having access to confidential information about service users over some two years. This was an abuse of her position of trust as a Social Worker. This access included periodically providing Person A with a new password to access the laptop whenever it was updated. In the Panel’s view, this put service users at risk of having their confidential information being disclosed and therefore put them at risk of harm. The Panel accepts that there is no Allegation that client records were accessed.
80. With regard to her dishonesty, the access she gave Person A to her laptop led to the laptop being used to create counterfeit documents which led to the payment of ten fraudulently obtained payments from the SLC into her bank account. While the Registrant did not initiate the fraud, she became aware of it as it continued and assisted Person A in the operation of that fraud.
81. The Registrant breached fundamental values and standards of her profession. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant’s misconduct, fell so far short of the standards expected of her in the circumstances, and was so serious that it constituted misconduct.
Decision on Impairment:
82. The Panel considered Ms Hollos’ submissions that the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise is impaired on both the personal and public components. Mr Walker submitted that the Registrant has shown insight and remediation, in both her evidence, and in her work as a Social Worker since the incidents in question. He submitted that the risk of repetition is minimal, and that the Panel should ask itself whether a finding of impairment is required on the basis of the wider public interest alone in this case.
83. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to CHRE v (1) NMC (2) Grant  EWHC 927. The Panel took into account the HCPTS Practice Note entitled “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’”. The Panel was aware that impairment is a matter for its own independent judgment and that public protection and the wider public interest should be considered.
84. The Panel took into account the Registrant’s oral evidence during the facts stages of the hearing, her reflective statement, her positive references including the reference from her current line manager at the London Borough of Redbridge, as well as her training certificate in Data Protection Awareness dated July 2018. The Panel took into account the lapse of over three years since the incidents and her subsequent record of practice and the references which refer to her honesty and integrity in the workplace as well as her high standard of work as a Social Worker.
85. Having considered all the information before it, the Panel was of the view that the Registrant has shown some insight. Her evidence and reflective statement were based on her contention that she did not commit any dishonesty. The Panel does not go so far as to conclude that she lacks insight because she did not admit the Allegation. However, while she did demonstrate insight into why giving access to her laptop was wrong, and she expressed remorse and shame, the insight she showed in her evidence and reflective statement was not directed to addressing her dishonesty. The Panel did note that in her evidence she acknowledged that fraud was wrong and constituted a criminal offence.
86. The Panel took into account her good practice since the incidents and the honesty and integrity she has demonstrated in the workplace since the incidents. The Panel was of the view that this in itself provides some remediation over the last three years of the misconduct proved.
87. The Panel took into account the questions formulated by Dame Janet Smith in the Fifth Shipman report, as set out in the case of CHRE v (1) NMC and (2) Grant  EWHC 927, which are presented in Grant as a test of impairment and ask whether a practitioner:
“a. has in the past acted and/or is liable in the future to act so as to put a patient or patients at unwarranted risk of harm; and/or
b. has in the past brought and/or is liable in the future to bring the medical profession into disrepute; and/or
c. has in the past breached and/or is liable in the future to breach one of the fundamental tenets of the medical profession; and/or
d. has in the past acted dishonestly and/or is liable to act dishonestly in the future."
88. The Panel decided that, in respect of the misconduct found proved, the Registrant had put service users at unwarranted risk of harm by providing access to their confidential information to Person A. The Registrant’s action in providing such access exploited her position of trust.
89. The Panel decided that the remaining limbs of the questions as set out in Grant were met with regard to the Registrant’s behaviour, in that she had brought the profession into disrepute, breached fundamental tenets, as set out in the Panel’s decision on misconduct, and acted dishonestly.
90. The Panel considered the circumstances before it, including the insight shown, the degree of remediation she has shown by her good and honest practice since, and the circumstances of the incidents, particularly that the Registrant did not instigate the fraud, although she became to know of it and participated in it as it continued. The Panel also noted the Registrant’s evidence that her relationship ended with Person A in due course, because she felt that she could not move forward with it in light of the incidents, and that she has moved forward in her personal circumstances. The Panel also took into account that the Registrant has fully engaged in these proceedings, and noted that these proceedings have had an impact upon her personally, the Panel having assessed her demeanour. The Panel is of the view that these proceedings have had a salutary effect upon her. In light of all these matters, the Panel was of the view that the risk of repetition was low. As such, the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant is not liable to put service users at unwarranted risk of harm, to bring the profession into disrepute, to breach fundamental tenets and to act dishonestly in the future. The Panel therefore decided that the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise is not impaired on the basis of the personal component as referred to in the HCPTS Practice Note on Impairment.
91. However, the Registrant’s misconduct was serious. The Registrant’s provision of access to her laptop to Person A, which was an abuse of her position of trust and which put service users’ confidential information at risk of disclosure, as well as her dishonesty, struck at the heart of fundamental values which she was expected to uphold as a Social Worker. Her misconduct continued for a prolonged period. In such circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that a reasonable well informed member of the public, with knowledge of all the facts and circumstances, would be gravely concerned if the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise were not found to be impaired on public interest grounds. The Panel was therefore satisfied that the need to uphold proper professional standards and to maintain public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made.
92. The Panel therefore found the Registrant’s current fitness to practise to be impaired on the basis of the need to uphold the wider public interest.
Decision on Sanction:
93. The Panel heard the submissions of Ms Hollos, who referred to the HCPC’s Sanctions Policy (SP), and took the position that the type of sanction to be imposed is a matter for the Panel. Mr Walker submitted that a Caution Order would be appropriate to meet the public interest in this case. In the event that the Panel did not agree, he stated that he accepted that a Conditions of Practice Order would not be appropriate as this is not a matter relating to practice concerns, and that Suspension Order would be the next available sanction. He submitted that the Registrant’s actions are not wholly incompatible with being a Registrant and therefore submitted that a Striking Off Order would not be appropriate or proportionate.
94. The Panel considered the SP and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was aware that the aim of any sanction is not to be punitive. Rather, the aim is to uphold the public interest. Sanction is a matter for the independent judgment of the Panel. The Panel took into account the principle of proportionality in coming to its decision on sanction.
95. The Panel identified the following mitigating factors:
i. the lack of any previous regulatory findings against the Registrant;
ii. the Registrant’s youth at the time of the incidents and that she was at the beginning of her social work career;
iii. the Registrant did not instigate the fraud and was more of a passive participant;
96. The Panel identified the following aggravating factors:
i. her misconduct occurred over a protracted period of time;
ii. she abused her position of trust;
iii. there was a pattern of dishonesty.
97. The Panel took into account that the Registrant is a mother of an infant under 12 months of age, as well as the financial responsibilities she has towards her household. The Panel also took into account the degree of insight and remediation which she has shown, her positive references, her reflective statement, as well all the evidence before it.
98. In light of the nature of the dishonesty, the Panel was of the view that the level of seriousness was towards the higher end of the spectrum, although it was not at the highest level. It was neither minor nor isolated, and was prolonged.
99. The Panel was of the view that mediation is not appropriate in respect of the misconduct in light of the seriousness.
100. The Panel discounted taking no further action because the misconduct was too serious for such an outcome, and the lack of a sanction would not satisfy the public interest in this case.
101. With regard to a Caution Order, the SP states at para. 101:
“A caution order is likely to be an appropriate sanction for cases in which:
• the issue is isolated, limited, or relatively minor in nature;
• there is a low risk of repetition;
• the Registrant has shown good insight; and
• the Registrant has undertaken appropriate remediation.”
102. The Panel was of the view that a Caution Order is not appropriate or proportionate because the misconduct was neither isolated, limited nor relatively minor, and while there is a low risk of repetition, the misconduct is too serious for the public interest to be satisfied by such a sanction.
103. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order but was satisfied that this would not be appropriate because there are no concerns about the Registrant’s professional practice to which conditions could be attached. Further, no conditions could be formulated which could address public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process.
104. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order and considered para. 121 of the SP:
“A suspension order is likely to be appropriate where there are serious concerns which cannot be reasonably addressed by a conditions of practice order, but which do not require the Registrant to be struck off the Register. These types of cases will typically exhibit the following factors:
• the concerns represent a serious breach of the Standards of conduct, performance and ethics;
• the Registrant has insight;
• the issues are unlikely to be repeated; and
• there is evidence to suggest the Registrant is likely to be able to resolve or remedy their failings.”
105. The Registrant has engaged with the regulatory process and has shown some insight and remediation. The Panel also took into account that she was not the instigator of the fraud nor did she produce the counterfeit documents herself, and was more of a passive participant. She has demonstrated her good practice in frontline child protection work since the incidents as attested to by her references, including a positive reference from her current line manager, and has demonstrated her commitment to her profession. The Panel has already determined there is a low risk of repetition, and that there are no public protection concerns which form a basis for the finding of impairment or the sanction which will be imposed.
106. In light of these factors, the Panel was satisfied that a Suspension Order is appropriate and proportionate. Then Panel concluded that a duration of 6 months is appropriate and proportionate, because it reflects on the one hand, the mitigating factors in this case, as well as the Registrant’s financial circumstances, but also sufficiently addresses the need to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process, uphold proper standards, and send a clear message that such conduct is unacceptable. The Panel was satisfied that such an outcome is a proportionate result when weighing these various factors in the balance.
107. The Panel considered paragraphs 130 and 131 of the ISP:
“A striking off order is a sanction of last resort for serious, persistent, deliberate or reckless acts involving (this list is not exhaustive):
• dishonesty …
A striking off order is likely to be appropriate where the nature and gravity of the concerns are such that any lesser sanction would be insufficient to protect the public, public confidence in the profession, and public confidence in the regulatory process. In particular where the Registrant:
• lacks insight;
• continues to repeat the misconduct or, where a Registrant has been suspended for two years continuously, fails to address a lack of competence; or
• is unwilling to resolve matters.”
108. In the Panel’s view, in light of the factors referred to above, including the insight and remediation demonstrated, a Striking Off Order would be disproportionate.
109. In coming to its decision, the Panel took into account the principle of proportionality, and the impact that such a sanction will have on the Registrant’s right to practise her profession, as well as the reputational and the financial impact. However, the Panel decided that the need to uphold the public interest meant that a Suspension Order for 6 months is proportionate.
110. The Panel was of the view that a future panel may be assisted by the following:
i. the Registrant’s attendance at the review of the Suspension Order;
ii. a reflective statement written by the Registrant demonstrating an understanding of why the misconduct found was wrong and its impact upon the wider public interest.
111. The Panel therefore decided to impose a Suspension Order for a period of 6 months.
Order: The Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Miss Amber N Okonji for a period of 6 months from the date this Order comes into effect.
Application for an interim order to cover the appeal period
1. The Panel heard an application from Ms Hollos for an 18 month Interim Suspension Order to cover the appeal period. She submitted that such an order is necessary to protect the public and is in the public interest.
2. Mr Walker reminded the Panel that there are no public protection concerns and submitted that the high bar to impose an Interim Order on the public interest alone is not met.
3. The Panel considered the HCPTS Practice Note entitled “Interim Orders” as well as Paragraphs 133-135 of the Indicative Sanctions Policy. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
4. The Panel took into account its previous findings, and adopting its reasons, the Panel came to the conclusion that an Interim Order is in the wider public interest in order to maintain public confidence in the profession and to uphold proper standards. The high threshold for such an Interim Order is met on the basis of the seriousness of the dishonesty, and the aggravating features of the case. Public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process would be seriously harmed if the Registrant were not made subject to an Interim Order during the appeal period.
5. The Panel was mindful of its decision at the sanction stage that Conditions were not appropriate. The Panel considered that not to impose an Interim Suspension Order would be inconsistent with its finding that a substantive sanction of Suspension is required.
6. The Panel recognised that it must take into consideration the impact of such an Interim Order on the Registrant as part of the principle of proportionality, and must balance the impact on the Registrant with the need to uphold the public interest. The Panel considered those matters; in the circumstances of the case, the Panel was satisfied that the need to uphold the public interest outweighed the Registrant’s interests in this regard.
7. The Panel decided to impose an Interim Suspension Order for a period of 12 months, a duration which is appropriate and proportionate in light of the Panel’s previous decisions, in order to allow any appeal which the Registrant brings, to be concluded.
8. The Panel makes an Interim Suspension Order under Article 31(2) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, the same being in the public interest. This order will expire: (if no appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) upon the expiry of the period during which such an appeal could be made; (if an appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) the final determination of that appeal, subject to a maximum period of 12 months.
History of Hearings for Miss Amber N Okonji
|Date||Panel||Hearing type||Outcomes / Status|
|12/08/2019||Conduct and Competence Committee||Final Hearing||Suspended|
|23/04/2019||Conduct and Competence Committee||Final Hearing||Hearing has not yet been held|