Mrs Lisa Finn

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW99872

Interim Order: Imposed on 08 May 2018

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 11/10/2019 End: 17:00 11/10/2019

Location: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service, 405 Kennington Road

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Struck off

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Allegation

While registered with the Health and Care Professions Council as a Social Worker:

1) On 9 January 2019, at Teesside Magistrates’ Court, you were convicted of fraud by abuse of position.

2) By reason of your conviction, your fitness to practise as a Social Worker is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters

Service

1. At the start of the hearing, the Registrant was neither present nor represented.

2. The chair invited Miss Brown to satisfy the Panel that the HCPTS had served notice of the proceedings on the Registrant in accordance with The Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (the Rules).

3. The Panel received evidence in the form of a Notice dated 15 August 2019 and a certificate of service, which showed that Notice of the proceedings had been sent by first class post on 15 August 2019 to the address held by the HCPC on the Register of Social Workers. The Panel saw that the notice gave the Registrant notice of the date, time and venue of the hearing.

4. The Panel had regard to Rule 3 of the Rules, which provides that the sending of a Notice under the Rules can be effected by sending it to the Registrant's address as it appears in the Register. It also had regard to Rule 6, which provides that a Registrant is entitled to 28 days’ notice of the hearing.

5. The Panel received the advice of the Legal Assessor, which it accepted.

6. In the light of the evidence above, the Panel was satisfied that the notice of the hearing had been served by post in accordance with the Rules.

Proceeding in the Absence

7. Ms Thompson on behalf of the HCPC, invited the Panel to proceed in the absence of the Registrant.

8. She submitted first that the Panel was entitled to proceed in the absence of the Registrant because the Panel had found there had been good service under the Rules. She submitted secondly that the Panel should exercise its discretion to proceed in the absence of the Registrant because all the evidence indicated that she had not engaged with the HCPC proceedings and voluntarily absented herself.

9. She reminded the Panel of the Notice referred to above and drew the Panel’s attention to a document which demonstrated that the documents upon which the HCPC proposed to rely had been sent electronically to the Registrant and viewed in her account on 27 August 2019 at 4.33pm.

10. The Panel received the advice of the Legal Assessor, which it followed, and which is incorporated in its determination set out below.

11. Accordingly, the Panel approached the question in two stages. Firstly, it considered whether it was entitled to proceed in the absence of the Registrant. Secondly, it considered whether, in all the circumstances, it should exercise its discretion to do so.

12. The Panel had regard to the Notice of Hearing referred to above.

13. The Panel had regard to Rules 3 and 6 of the Rules, referred to above and Rule 11, which provides that where the registrant “is neither present nor represented at a hearing, the committee may nevertheless proceed with the hearing if it is satisfied that all reasonable steps have been taken to serve the notice of the hearing under Rule 6 (1) on the health professional.”

14. Finally, the Panel had regard to the guidance given to panels by the Court of Appeal in GMC v Adeogba [2016] EWCA Civ 162 that, in deciding whether reasonable steps had been taken to serve a registrant when Notice had been posted to his registered address, the Panel should bear in mind that a registrant is under an obligation to maintain an up-to-date address on the Regulator’s Register and that the Regulator’s “responsibility is very simple. It is to communicate with the practitioner at the address he has provided; neither more nor less. It is the practitioner’s obligation to ensure that the address is up to date”.

15. In these circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that the HCPC had taken all reasonable steps to serve Notice of the proceedings on the Registrant by posting a Notice to the address held by the HCPC on the appropriate Register.

16. The Panel then considered whether it should exercise its discretion to proceed in the Registrant's absence.

17. The Panel had regard to the guidance given in the HCPTS Practice Note “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant" (September 2018) and to the decision of the House of Lords in R v Jones [2002] UKHL 5 and the further guidance given to panels by the Court of Appeal in GMC v Adeogba (above). It bore in mind that the discretion to proceed in the absence of the Registrant should be exercised with great care and caution.

18. It looked at the nature and circumstances of the Registrant's absence, and in particular whether her absence was deliberate and voluntary so that it amounted to a waiver of her right to appear. It had particular regard to the document which suggests that the Registrant had received and opened the bundle of documents upon which the HCPC relied. The Panel concluded that the Registrant knew about the hearing.

19. It also considered whether an adjournment was likely to result in the Registrant attending at a later date, the likely length of any such adjournment, and whether there was any indication that the Registrant wished to be represented. The Panel was satisfied that there is no evidence that an adjournment would secure the Registrant’s attendance or that she would wish to be represented at any future hearing.

20. The Panel accepted that a registrant will inevitably suffer prejudice by not being able to present his or her case. Nevertheless, the Panel balanced that against the public interest in allowing the HCPC to fulfil its duty to protect the public. The Panel bore in mind the guidance given by the Court of Appeal in GMC v Adeogba that, “It would run entirely counter to the protection, promotion and maintenance of the health and safety of the public if a practitioner could effectively frustrate the process and challenge a refusal to adjourn when that practitioner had deliberately failed to engage in the process.”

21. When assessing the public interest, the Panel had regard to the fact that although the HCPC had not secured the attendance of any witnesses, a delay would have an impact on the resources available to the Regulator and there was general public interest in cases being disposed of promptly.

22. In all the circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that there was no good reason to delay and it should exercise its discretion to proceed in the absence of the Registrant.

Hearing in Private

23. Ms Thompson submitted that part of the hearing should be held in private because, although the case arose from the Registrant’s conviction, some of the evidence related to the Registrant’s health.

24. The Panel heard the advice of the Legal Assessor, which it accepted and incorporated into the decision set out below.

25. The Panel had regard to Rule 10(1)(a) of the Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (the ‘Rules’) which states:

“At any hearing

(a) the proceedings shall be held in public unless the Committee is satisfied that, in the interests of justice or for the protection of the private life of the registrant, the complainant, any person giving evidence or of any patient or client, the public should be excluded from all or part of the hearing;”

26. Accordingly, the Panel decided to hold in private only those parts of the hearing relating to the Registrant’s health.

Background

27. The Registrant was a Senior Social Worker who was employed by Middlesbrough Borough Council (the Council) for approximately 20 years before the events leading to her conviction.

28. Part of her role involved dealing with vulnerable families who required financial help and assistance from the Council, and the process to allow such families to claim that assistance involved the completion of what is known as a Section 17 Form or “s.17 form”. The payments that followed from that form could be for a variety of purposes but they offered direct assistance to children in need. The form had to be signed by a line manager of the team along with the department head and the cash funds would then be handed to the Registrant who would distribute it to the family named within that form.

29. On 14 March 2018, an Audit Officer within the Council, discovered two Section 17 Forms which had apparently been signed by a former employee who had left the Council’s employment three months earlier. On both of those occasions, the forms had been submitted by and cash paid to the Registrant. The sums involved at that stage were £462.55 and £455.50.

30. An internal audit therefore took place, checking all of the transactions involving the Registrant. It was established that approximately 60 transaction, amounting to a total of £28,397.18, were fraudulent and the money had been paid to the Registrant. Those transactions took place over a period between February 2017 and March 2018.

31. The Registrant was interviewed at work on 15 March 2018. After initially denying the fraudulent transactions she took a short break, returned to the interview and admitted what she had done, albeit only to the extent of £10,000 to 12,000.

32. Approximately a week later, she spoke again to her employers and explained that she had stolen the money.

33. In due course, the Registrant was charged in relation to these transactions and she appeared at Teesside Magistrates Court on 9 January 2019 where she pleaded guilty to Fraud by abuse of position under Sections 1 and 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. The sum to which she pleaded guilty was £28,397.18.

34. She was committed to the Crown Court at Teesside where she was sentenced on 27 March 2019 to 16 months imprisonment suspended for 24 months. The Registrant was also required to undertake Rehabilitation Activity Requirements for a maximum of 30 days and to remain at her home address between the hours of 10:00pm and 7:00am for six months which was to be electronically monitored.

 

Decision on Facts and Grounds

35. The Panel was provided with a certificate of conviction dated 5 April 2019 which confirmed the Registrant’s conviction. She also drew the Panel’s attention to Rule 10(1)(d) of the Rules which provides that:

“where the registrant has been convicted of a criminal offence, a certified copy of the certificate of conviction (or, in Scotland, an extract conviction) shall be admissible as proof of that conviction and of the findings of fact upon which it was based;”

36. The Panel heard the advice of the Legal Assessor, which it accepted, and found that the conviction was proved. It also found that the facts upon which the conviction was based were those set out in the prosecution opening at the Teesside Crown Court and summarised above. No separate consideration arises in relation to the ground as it is the fact of the conviction.

 

Decision on Impairment

37. The Panel then considered whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise was currently impaired by reason of the conviction.

38. The Panel heard submissions from Ms Thompson who reminded the Panel that it must consider both the personal and public elements of impairment. She drew the Panel’s attention to such elements of remorse and insight as could be gleaned from the papers and reminded the Panel that there was no other material from the Registrant.

39. The Panel heard the advice of the Legal Assessor which it accepted and incorporated into its decision. The Panel also had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note, “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’” (22 March 2017). It had regard to both the personal and public components of impairment.

40. The Panel is aware that impairment is a matter for its own professional judgement. The Panel also bore in mind that it was concerned with whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired. The Panel focused on the need to protect the public and the wider public interest in the future.

41. The Panel bore in mind that not every conviction will give rise to a finding of impairment and had regard to the conduct of the Registrant, the nature, circumstances and gravity of the offence she had committed and the critically important public interest issues, in particular the need to maintain confidence in the profession as well as declaring and upholding proper standards of conduct and behaviour which the public expect.

42. In deciding whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired, the Panel had regard to the following examples given by Dame Janet Smith in the 5th Shipman report and subsequently adopted by the High Court in Cheatle v GMC [2009] EWHC 645 Admin and CHRE v NMC and P Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin):

“a. Does the Registrant present a risk to patients

b. Has the Registrant brought the profession into disrepute

c. Has the Registrant breached one of the fundamental tenets of the profession

d. Is it the case that the Registrant’s integrity cannot be relied upon?”

43. The Panel also had regard to the direction given to all panels by Cox J in the Grant case above, not to lose sight of the need to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour so as to maintain public confidence in the profession. She said:

“In determining whether a practitioner’s fitness to practise is impaired by reason of misconduct, the relevant panel should generally consider not only whether the practitioner continues to present a risk to members of the public in his or her current role, but also whether the need to uphold proper professional standards and public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made in the particular circumstances.” 

44. Looking at the personal component, the Panel had regard to the evidence of remorse and some insight apparent in the Registrant’s early plea of guilty, and repayment of the money she stole.

45. Nevertheless, there is no evidence before the Panel that she has developed sufficient understanding or insight as to the impact of her actions on the profession and how it has breached professional standards, to reassure the Panel that she would not repeat her dishonesty if she were in a similar position in the future. Nor is there any evidence that a similar situation is so unlikely to recur that the risk is removed.

46. For those reasons the Panel must proceed on the basis that a risk of repetition remains.

47. Turning to the questions asked in Grant (referred to above), the Panel does not find a direct risk to service users in this case. Nevertheless, by defrauding her employer of a significant sum of money she has brought the profession into disrepute, breached the fundamental tenet of honesty and integrity and shown that she is someone whose integrity cannot be relied upon.

48. In the light of those findings, having considered the public component of impairment and in particular the duty to maintain public confidence in the profession and maintain proper standards of conduct, the Panel is satisfied that a finding of impairment is necessary in order to send a clear message that the profession takes this conduct and the subsequent conviction seriously.

49. Accordingly, the Panel finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired in respect of both the personal and public components.

 

Decision on Sanction 

50. The Panel heard submissions from Ms Thompson on the question of sanction. Ms Thompson reminded the Panel of the correct approach to sanction and took the Panel through the relevant paragraphs of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy” (2019). She reminded the Panel of the mitigating and aggravating factors in this case.

51. The Panel also accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and had regard to the HCPC “Sanctions Policy” (March 2019).

52. The Panel is aware that the purpose of a sanction is not to be punitive. The Registrant has already been punished by the sentence imposed. The Panel considered first the risk currently posed by the Registrant. The Panel also had regard to the wider public interest, which includes the need:

a. to maintain public confidence in the profession;

b. to promote and maintain proper professional standards and conduct for members of that profession.

53. The Panel also bore in mind the principle of proportionality and balanced its duty to protect the public against the rights of the Registrant.

54. The Panel had regard to the following mitigating factors:

a. the Registrant demonstrated remorse and apologised for her misconduct;

b. the Registrant made admissions to her employer after initially lying;

c. the Registrant entered a plea of guilty at the earliest opportunity;

d. the Registrant has repaid from her workplace pension the money she had stolen;

e. there are no other criminal or regulatory matters recorded against the Registrant apart from a conviction in 1996, so that she was treated as a person of good character by the judge who sentenced her;

f. the Registrant has a 20 year career as a Social Worker and appears to have been well regarded by her colleagues.

55. The aggravating features are that:

a. The Registrant’s conviction arises from sustained dishonesty over 13 months involving some 60 fraudulent transactions, including forgery of former colleagues’ signatures, which only ceased when her dishonesty was discovered. As such her actions were active and not passive;

b. the Registrant’s dishonest activity was committed during her professional practice and represented a gross abuse of her position;

c. her dishonesty was a serious breach of trust and a misuse of public funds;

d. the financial benefit the Registrant obtained was significant;

e. there is no evidence that the Registrant has developed any further insight or engaged in any remediation through the regulatory process.

56. In order to ensure that it imposed a sanction that was no more restrictive than was necessary to protect the public and the public interest, the Panel considered the sanctions available to it in ascending order of severity.

57. The Panel considered that to take no action would not be appropriate given the serious nature of the conviction. It would not uphold the public interest, nor would it address the residual risk of repetition which the Panel has identified.

58. The Panel considered a Caution Order and had regard to the following paragraphs of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy”:

“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.”

59. The Panel concluded that a Caution Order would not protect the public or the wider public interest, in the light of its findings set out above. The misconduct giving rise to the Registrant’s conviction was neither minor nor isolated. The Panel has identified a risk of repetition and there is insufficient evidence of insight to impose a Caution Order in any event.

60. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order and determined that such an order would not be appropriate given the nature of the Registrant’s conduct, in particular her acts of dishonesty, and her lack of engagement with the HCPC.

61. In coming to this conclusion, the Panel had particular regard to paragraph 107 of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy” which provides:

“Conditions will only be effective in cases where the registrant is genuinely committed to resolving the concerns raised and the panel is confident they will do so. Therefore, conditions of practice are unlikely to be suitable in cases in which the registrant has failed to engage with the fitness to practise process or where there are serious or persistent failings.”

62. The Panel also had regard to paragraph 108, which provides:

“Conditions are also less likely to be appropriate in more serious cases, for example those involving:

• Dishonesty…”

63. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. The Panel considered paragraph 121 of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy” which provides:

“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 HCPC “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."

64. The Panel found that the Registrant has neither demonstrated sufficient insight, in particular into the impact of her dishonesty on her colleagues and the profession as a whole. Nor is there any evidence that she has engaged with the HCPC to demonstrate that she understands the impact of her conduct on the reputation and standards of her profession. The risk of repetition remains.

65. Looking at the wider public interest, the Panel was satisfied that the serious nature of the offence which the Registrant committed during her practice and the serious breach of trust they represent, meant that in all the circumstances, the Registrant’s conduct was fundamentally incompatible with continued registration. The Panel found that suspension would be insufficient to reflect that finding. In coming to that view, the Panel had particular regard to the importance attached to dishonesty in Paragraphs 56 and 57 of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy”:

56. “The Standards of conduct, performance and ethics require registrants to be honest and trustworthy (Standard 9).

57. Dishonesty undermines public confidence in the profession and can, in some cases, impact the public’s safety."

66. The Panel next considered a Striking Off Order. The Panel had particular regard to paragraph 131 of the HCPC “Sanctions Policy” which provides:

“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…”

67. The Panel found that the nature and gravity of the Registrant’s conduct over a considerable period, together with the breach of trust inherent in her acts of dishonesty, left the Panel with no other sanction which would sufficiently protect the public and the public interest.

68. The Panel has seen very limited evidence from the Registrant of insight or remediation to deflect them from that view.

69. The Panel was satisfied that public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process would be undermined if the Registrant remained on the Register having abused the trust of her position.

70. Accordingly, the Panel makes a Striking off Order in respect of the Registrant.

Order

ORDER: The Registrar is directed to strike the name of Mrs Lisa Finn from the Register on the date this Order comes into effect.

Notes

Interim Order

Application for Order

1. Ms Thompson made an application for an Interim Suspension Order for a period of 18 months to cover the appeal period or until any appeal lodged has been determined.

2. Ms Thompson applied for the matter of an interim order to be considered in the Registrant’s absence. In this respect, Ms Thompson drew the Panel’s attention to its previous decision to proceed in the Registrant’s absence. She stated that the Notice of Hearing had set out the process for an interim order and the Registrant had been put on notice that in the event of a finding that required consideration of this matter the HCPC would be making an application.

Decision

3. The Panel noted Ms Thompson’s submissions and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.

4. It has considered whether to proceed in the Registrant’s absence and has decided that it will. There is no indication that the Registrant would attend at a future date if the Panel adjourned to make its decision on this issue and there is public interest in this matter being considered today.

5. Given the Panel’s findings that the Registrant’s actions are fundamentally at variance with remaining on the Register and has imposed a Striking Off Order, it would be inconsistent with that need for public protection and the wider public interest not to impose some form of interim order. The Panel, for the same reasons it identified above, came to the conclusion that it is impracticable and inappropriate to formulate interim conditions of practice in this instance.

6. The Panel therefore makes an Interim Suspension Order 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.

7. 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. This Interim Suspension Order is made for the maximum period of 18 months.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mrs Lisa Finn

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
11/10/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off