Mrs Natalie James

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW90538

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 11:00 11/07/2019 End: 18:00 11/07/2019

Location: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Suspended

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Allegation

Whilst registered as a Social Worker with the Health and Care Professions Council, you, on 27 June 2018, at Oxford Magistrates’ Court, were convicted of:

1. Theft from a shop on 20 April 2018, contrary to section 1 (1) and 7 of the Theft Act 1988.

2. Driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a public place on 20 April 2018, without due care and attention contrary to section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1968 and schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Act 1988 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988.

3. By reason of your conviction as set out at paragraphs 1 and 2, your fitness to practice is impaired.

Finding

Background:


1. On 23 April 2018 the HCPC received a referral from the Registrant’s employer, Oxfordshire County Council, to inform them that the Registrant had been arrested for the offence of shoplifting.


2. On 20 April 2018, the Registrant went into a Waitrose supermarket in Abingdon. She selected a ‘scan yourself’ device from the display.  She then proceeded to select a number of items but did not appear to scan them before placing them into her trolley. She spent over an hour placing items in her trolley amounting to a value of over £400. She then pushed her trolley past the self-scan tills where payment was due, and past an un-staffed till. She exited the store and upon doing so was apprehended by one of the store’s security staff.


3. The member of store security staff tried to speak to her but she was uncooperative. The Registrant got into her car and began to drive off (without the shopping which had been retained by security staff). The member of staff got into her car and the Registrant continued to drive away from the car park. A police officer who had been made aware of an incident at Waitrose was approaching the car park when she saw the Registrant’s car driving quickly out of the car park. She then saw the vehicle drive through a red light.  At some stage the member of security staff managed to get out of the car before the Registrant drove off again.


4. The Registrant was arrested and interviewed. She admitted to walking out of the store with the goods but stated that she did this as the store was very busy and she intended to return to pay for the items but was accosted by the member of staff. When questioned about her manner of driving, she said she was just trying to get away from the member of staff who would not leave her car alone and that she was in too much of a state to consider how she was driving.


5. The Registrant originally pleaded not guilty but then, on 27 June 2018, the Registrant changed her plea to guilty to Theft and Careless Driving at Oxford Magistrates’ Court. She was sentenced to a financial penalty of £300 and ordered to pay prosecution costs.


6. The Registrant informed her employer. An internal disciplinary investigation commenced. She informed them that she was preoccupied and stressed at the time and made a mistake by leaving the shop to fill her car with the shopping with the intention of returning to pay for the goods once the queues had subsided. She was very distressed at the way the member of staff treated her and so she drove off quickly in order to get away from him. She said: “I am so truly horrified by what has happened that I cannot articulate how deeply I regret the part I had to play in this”. 


7. She has since submitted written representations where she now admits the facts behind the Theft conviction. She says: “My previous response was felt to be too defensive by the panel and I can now see that at that point I hadn’t been able to truly identify or reflect fully as I felt so closed down and numbed by the shock, anxiety and pressure of the many investigations and the magnitude of my actions…I left Waitrose and did not pay for my goods, for which I cannot excuse or explain.”


Decision on Facts:


8. In considering this case the Panel bore in mind that the burden of proving the facts rests upon the HCPC and that the standard of proof is the civil standard of the balance of probabilities. It has taken account of all the evidence presented to it, namely the written evidence from the HCPC and the written and oral evidence of the Registrant. It has also considered the submissions of the representative and of the Registrant and has accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.


9. In particular, the Panel noted the advice of the Legal Assessor as follows:
“The HCPC’s Procedural Rules indicate, at Rule 10 (1) (d), that where a registrant has been convicted of a criminal offence, a certified copy of the certificate of conviction shall be admissible as proof of that conviction and of the findings of fact upon which it was based.  You have that document before you and you have the Registrant’s admissions so you would be entitled to find Particulars 1 and 2 proved on the evidence you have heard”.


10. The Panel confirmed that the Certificate of Conviction in respect of the charges specified in Particulars 1 and 2 has been presented to it.  Moreover, the Registrant has admitted those Particulars.  Accordingly, the Panel finds those Particulars proved. 


Decision on Statutory Ground:


11. The Panel once again took account of the advice of the Legal Assessor, who stated that, generally, in assessing whether the Registrant’s actions satisfied the statutory ground of Conviction, the Panel had to be satisfied that the convictions were sufficiently serious to give rise to concerns about the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise since not all convictions would put her Fitness to Practise in jeopardy, such as very minor Road Traffic Act offences. 


12. The Panel took account of the fact that the conviction in Particular 1 was for an offence of dishonesty (Theft) which is always regarded as serious in the regulatory sphere. It therefore concluded that the conviction specified in Particular 1 was serious enough to engage the statutory ground of Conviction.  Furthermore, it noted that the offence specified in Particular 2 was for driving without due care and attention, during which she went through a red light and thereby potentially endangered the lives of others as well as herself.  Moreover, she drove in such a fashion so as to attract the attention of police officers and which led to her subsequent arrest. 


13. The Panel therefore concluded that both convictions specified in Particulars 1 and 2 were sufficiently serious to comply with the requirements of the statutory ground of Conviction.


14. The Panel also concluded that the Registrant had breached the following Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics as a Registrant with the HCPC, namely:


9 – Be honest and trustworthy
9.1 – You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession


Further, the Panel also concluded that the Registrant had breached the following Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers, namely:


3.1 - understand the need to maintain high standards of personal and professional conduct

Decision on Impairment:


15. In reaching its decision on impairment, the Panel has taken account of the submissions of the parties, the oral testimony of the Registrant and the advice of the Legal Assessor. It has also taken account of the HCPC Practice Note “Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired”.


16. The Panel is aware that, in determining whether fitness to practise is impaired, it must take account of a range of issues which, in essence, comprise two components, namely the ‘personal’ component (the current competence and behaviour of the individual Registrant) and the ‘public’ component (the need to protect service users, declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour and maintain public confidence in the profession). It appreciates that not every conviction will automatically result in a Panel concluding that fitness to practice is impaired. Moreover, it cannot adopt a simplistic view and conclude that fitness to practise is not impaired simply on the basis that, since the allegation arose, a Registrant has corrected matters or “learned his/her lesson”. Although the Panel’s task is not to punish past wrongdoings, it does need to take account of past acts or omissions in determining whether a Registrant’s present fitness to practise is impaired. In addition, when assessing the likelihood of a Registrant causing similar harm in the future, the Panel should take account of both the degree of harm if any, caused by a Registrant and that Registrant’s culpability for that harm. Finally, the Panel is to consider whether a Registrant has demonstrated insight into her attitude and failings.


17. The Panel heard evidence from the Registrant who adopted her most recent statement in which she expressed remorse. She stated that she now accepted that she had committed theft and that she had left the store without paying.  In her oral evidence, during cross examination, she indicated that she had changed her stance in relation to her dishonesty because she was being defensive and had not fully admitted to herself what she had done. She emphasised that she was under pressure from a poor work/life balance and was stressed and tired at the time of the offence.  Furthermore, she had been under some financial pressure. However, she could not explain her state of mind at the time and could not give a reason why she had left the store without paying.


18. The Registrant confirmed that she had addressed her poor work/life balance since leaving her full-time employment at Oxfordshire County Council and she was now doing agency work, which enabled her to be more flexible. Her husband had also altered his work pattern and was now available to assist with child care, thereby relieving the Registrant of some of that responsibility.  She had also had more time to reflect upon what she had done and had led to her gradually realising that she was responsible for her actions.  She also indicated that on the day she was shopping for her son’s birthday party (combined with other shopping) which is how she came to select so many items.  She accepted that her actions had breached a fundamental tenet of being a social worker and that she had brought the profession into disrepute.  She stated that the public needed to have faith in her integrity and this had been compromised. She reiterated that she was truly sorry for what she had done.


19. In answer to the Panel’s clarification questions, she initially indicated that when she began her shopping she intended to pay for the items.  However, she was unable to say why she left the store without paying save to say that she had reflected and now realised that “theft is theft”. She repeated that she did not know what came over her but confirmed that “it is my act and I have to own it”.  She explained that her earlier protestations of innocence were due to her being defensive.  She later accepted that she did not intend to pay and that she “must have intended to steal” which she could not excuse. She had gradually accepted her responsibility by realising that she had to be honest with herself and her family and it had taken time for her to process and digest her actions.  She also maintained that she had told her current employer that she had not protected herself and that she had put herself in that position. When asked whether she had told her employer that she had intended to steal the items, she said “I told her it was theft”.


20. During further questioning from the Presenting Officer the Registrant originally said that she scanned the items in her trolley but then conceded “if I’m honest I didn’t scan all of them” the Registrant accepted that she did intend to steal some items (those which she had not scanned) and that she had been dishonest.  She accepted that she intended to steal.  She had told her current employer that what she had done was clearly theft - her employer had been very supportive and had said that “we all make mistakes”.  The time between the conviction and now had given her the opportunity to take a “long and hard look at myself”.                

The Panel’s decision


21. The Panel accepted the Registrant’s evidence about the context of her offending, namely that she was under stress and was tired due to the pressures of her work and her poor work/life balance.  It also accepted that she had made adjustments to her life and that her working pattern was more flexible. The Panel also acknowledged her excellent career and that she had engaged with the HCPC, which included attending at this hearing. It further noted that she had expressed remorse for her actions.


22. However, the Panel was not persuaded that the Registrant had been entirely open and honest about her intention to take goods including non-essential items from a store without paying.  It noted the background of her inconsistency about how she viewed her offending. The Registrant initially maintained to store staff, the police, her employer, the courts, her GP, friends and work colleagues that she that she intended to pay for the items.


23. However, the Registrant did change her plea and now appeared to accept that she had been guilty of theft. The Panel found that she nonetheless had a tendency to use language which distanced her from that crime. The Panel found that she had great difficulty in answering questions which required her to give a reason for acting dishonestly and seemed unable to openly admit that she had the necessary criminal intention. Further, she still could not give an explanation as to why she had done what she did. The Panel therefore concluded that the Registrant seemed to be trying to minimise her culpability.


24. Consequently, the Panel was of the view that the Registrant, although she had some insight about what she had done, had not developed sufficient insight to persuade the Panel that she had remediated her wrongdoing or that there was little or no risk in her repeating dishonest behaviour or her offending.


25. Accordingly, the Panel concluded that the Registrant was currently impaired in respect of the personal component.


26. In relation to the public interest component, the Panel considered that the Registrant’s convictions were in any event sufficiently serious that the need to declare and uphold professional standards and maintain public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made in these circumstances. Social workers must be trusted to behave with honesty and integrity and committing such offences required a marker to be set down to remind the Registrant and other members of the profession that such behaviour is unacceptable. A right-minded member of the public, with full knowledge of all of the circumstances, would be concerned if a finding of current impairment were not made.


Decision on Sanction:


HCPC Submission on Sanction


27. Mr Bridges for the HCPC submitted that the HCPC was neutral as to sanction and he reminded the Panel that the purpose of sanction was not to punish the Registrant. He submitted that the conviction for dishonesty had already removed the Registrant’s good character and that may be seen as punishment in itself.


28. Mr Bridges suggested that an aggravating feature may be the Registrant’s lack of insight, but that the Panel had new information before it from the Registrant about her insight.  A further aggravating feature may also be the value of the goods taken by the Registrant.  Mr Bridges advised that mitigating features may be the guilty plea, although that was not not initially the Registrant’s position. There were also positive, up dated testimonials provided by the Registrant. The Registrant


29. The Registrant told the Panel that said she had reflected further and had spoken to her employer and the agency and had explained the conviction very clearly to both.  She referred to her written submission and apologised to the Panel for her behaviour.  


Sanction


HCPC Submission on Sanction


30. Mr Bridges for the HCPC submitted that the HCPC was neutral as to sanction and he reminded the Panel that the purpose of sanction was not to punish the Registrant. He submitted that the conviction for dishonesty had already removed the Registrant’s good character and that this may be seen as punishment in itself.


31. Mr Bridges suggested that an aggravating feature may be the Registrant’s lack of insight, but that the Panel had new information before it from the Registrant about this.  A further aggravating feature may also be the value of the goods stolen by the Registrant. Mr Bridges advised that mitigating features may include the guilty plea, although that was not initially the Registrant’s position. There were also positive, up dated testimonials provided by the Registrant.


The Registrant


32. The Registrant told the Panel that she had reflected further and had spoken again to her employer and the agency and has now been explicit with both about the convictions.  She referred to her written document produced for this stage of the Hearing containing her reflections on the Panel’s findings and apologised for her behaviour. 

 
Decision on Sanction


33. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and reminded itself that the primary purpose of sanction is to protect the public. It was mindful of the public interest, that it must act proportionately and it considered the HCPC Sanctions Policy. 


34. The Panel had regard to its findings on impairment of fitness to practice and its assessment of the Registrant’s evidence. It has found that the Registrant in her evidence was not entirely open and honest about her behaviour and was inconsistent in her accounts of the circumstances of the offences and her intentions at the time. It carefully considered the new information from the Registrant. The testimonials are not clear as to exactly what was said by the Registrant to her manager and the agency as to the incident leading to the conviction and her insight into her culpability. The letter from her current employment agency appears to reiterate the previous position and takes matters little further. 

 
35. The Panel considered that the Registrant has shown some insight, in that she has now acknowledged in her written document, albeit at this stage of the hearing, that it was her ‘intention to steal’. However, the Panel finds that her position lacks authenticity in that she has not demonstrated that she has reflected upon and understood the reasons for her offending behaviour. In the absence of such reflections the Panel is concerned that her insight is limited. The Registrant has in the past been less than clear to her employers about her conviction and the Panel found that she does tend to avoid the seriousness of the conviction. In her written document she stated that she lied to the Police at the time and that what she “told the Police was what I hoped would be [a] more palatable version of events.” 


36. The Panel found the following mitigating features:


a. A guilty plea (although not initially).
b. Some evidence of remorse and apologies.
c. Thirty years of practice as a Social Worker.
d. No evidence of previous fitness to practise concerns.
e. Positive testimonials.
f. No harm to service users.
37. The Panel found the following aggravating features:

 a. A less than equivocal acceptance of her actions and the resultant conviction.
 b. A lack of developed insight into her actions.
 c. The value of the goods stolen and the circumstances of the incident, including her lack of cooperation with security staff.
 d. The Registrant’s attempts to deflect responsibility and minimise her behaviour.
e.       The conviction of careless driving placed the public at serious risk of harm. 

38. The Panel approached sanction, beginning with the least restrictive first, bearing in mind the need for proportionality. Taking no further action and the sanction of a Caution Order would not reflect the seriousness of the conviction allegation found proved. Further, such orders would not be adequate given the wider public interest in maintaining confidence in both the profession and the regulatory process. The Panel found that neither order is appropriate or proportionate in the circumstances of this case.

39. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The allegation found proved is serious and includes a conviction for dishonesty. The conviction is not something which lends itself to remediation by way of Conditions of Practice. In the circumstances of this case the Panel concluded that Conditions of Practice were not appropriate or proportionate and that realistic and workable conditions could not be formulated.  Further, such an order would fail to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulator.

40. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. The Registrant has been convicted of theft and careless driving. The Panel has taken account of its findings on impairment and the Registrant’s attitude to what she described as her “offending behaviour”. The Panel continues to have concerns about the Registrant’s level of insight and her attitude to her conviction.  She appears to be willing and able to remedy matters, but she has yet to demonstrate mature and developed insight into her behaviour and its impact on service users, colleagues and the public. She has made no apparent attempt to understand why she behaved in this dishonest way, both at the time of the incident and subsequently in seeking to persuade people that she had always intended to pay for the items she stole. 

41. The Panel concluded that these convictions represent a very serious breach of professional standards of conduct.  Given the nature and gravity of the convictions, the Panel concluded that it was appropriate and proportionate to impose a Suspension Order for the maximum period of 12 months. This order is sufficient to protect the public and to maintain confidence in the profession, and to uphold and declare proper standards of conduct.

42. The Panel carefully considered whether or not the seriousness of the conviction and the Registrant’s subsequent behaviour warranted a Striking Off order. The Panel was mindful of the HCPC Sanctions Policy regarding Striking Off. The Panel noted that the Registrant’s behaviour involves dishonesty and the Panel has found that she lacks insight. However, it has found that the Registrant placed no service users at risk of harm and that there is scope for her insight to develop. Although very serious, the dishonesty is not at the most serious end of the spectrum of such behaviour. It concluded that, at this stage, it would not be proportionate to impose a Striking Off Order as that would go further than was necessary to protect the public and the wider public interest. 

43. The Panel consider that a Panel reviewing the Suspension Order would be assisted by the Registrant providing further evidence of reflection and genuine insight in to her behaviour and its impact and remediation.

 

Order

ORDER: That the Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Mrs Natalie James for a period of 12 months from the date this order comes into effect. 

Notes

Decision on Proceedings in Absence and Interim Order

29. The Panel noted that the Registrant was no longer present. The Panel accepted the advice from the Legal Assessor and decided it was fair and appropriate to proceed in the absence of the Registrant.  The Registrant attended this hearing but the Panel heard that she had left after her appearance today. She did not seek an adjournment.  The Panel handed down the Decision on Sanction.

30. Mr Bridges applied for an Interim Suspension Order given the sanction imposed and submitted it was necessary to protect the public and in the public interest.

31. The Panel accepted legal advice from the Legal Assessor and reminded itself that it is carrying out a risk assessment exercise in light of its findings.  It was mindful of those findings and decided that that it would be wholly incompatible with those findings, and with the Suspension Order imposed, to conclude that an Interim Order is not necessary for protection of the public nor in the public interest.

32. The Panel found that an Interim Order is necessary and was in the public interest. Given its findings the Panel determined that it is appropriate that a Suspension Order is imposed on an interim basis for a period of 18 months to cover any appeal period.  When the appeal period expires this interim order will come to an end unless there has been an application to appeal.  If there is no appeal the Suspension Order shall apply.


Interim Order:

33. The Panel makes an Interim Suspension under Article 31(2) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, the same being necessary to protect members of the public and being otherwise in the public interest. 

34. 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 18 months.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mrs Natalie James

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
11/07/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Suspended