Application to proceed in Private
1. The Registrant applied for those parts of the hearing where matters relating to her health might be mentioned to be heard in private. Mr Millin on behalf of the HCPC did not oppose this application. The Panel decided that in order to protect the Registrant’s private interest, those parts of the hearing should be held in private.
2. Zarah Iqbal (‘the Registrant’) is registered with the Council as an Operating Department Practitioner.
3. On 28 March 2019, the Registrant advised the Council that she had, on her own admission, been convicted of fraud by abuse of position. She was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment suspended for 24 months, to perform 240 hours of unpaid work and 25 Rehabilitation Activity Requirement Days.
4. At the outset of the hearing, the Registrant informed the Panel that she admitted the conviction.
Decision on Facts
5. In reaching its decision, the Panel considered all the evidence before it, which amounted to the memorandum of conviction, together with the Registrant’s admission.
6. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
7. The Panel was satisfied that this was a true memorandum and it therefore found the conviction proved.
Decision on Grounds
8. The Panel decided that the Memorandum of Conviction established the ground of conviction.
Decision on Impairment
9. In reaching its decision, the Panel considered all the information before it including the evidence of the Registrant, her submissions and those by Mr Millin. It had regard to the HCPC’s Practice Notes on ‘Conviction and Impairment’. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
10. The Panel had in mind that the Registrant made immediate admissions when interviewed by the police; that she had pleaded guilty at the outset; also, that she self-referred to the HCPC.
11. In her evidence, the Registrant described, as she did at the Crown Court, that she felt under pressure from others and that this resulted in her committing her fraudulent acts. The Registrant referred to her reflective statement and **** she had undergone. She said that she found these sessions to be helpful in assisting her to address how she would approach matters in future, were a similar situation to occur. She said that she had learnt a lesson and that such dishonest actions would not occur again. In this context, the Crown Court judge in his sentencing remarks commented that “there was no risk of recurrence”.
12. The Registrant has provided a number of references, referring to her character, albeit many of these are undated and unsigned and do not state whether the writer was aware of her conviction.
13. This was an extremely serious offence involving dishonesty over a lengthy period and a substantial amount of money. It was a sophisticated fraud in circumstances where the Registrant was able to abuse her employer’s financial systems. As a result of her criminal behaviour, the Registrant was in breach of Standard 9 of the HCPC’s ‘Standard of Performance and Ethics’ which states
“you must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession”.
14. In her evidence, the Registrant agreed that her actions would reflect poorly on the reputation of the profession. However, the Panel has found that although she has displayed some degree of insight into her criminal acts and its resultant effects, this is as yet not fully developed.
15. The Panel has therefore concluded that the Registrant’s current fitness to practise is impaired in relation to the personal component.
16. In regard to the public element, the Panel concluded that right thinking members of the public would be concerned if a finding of impairment were not made where a Registrant has been convicted of fraudulent conduct on this scale, particularly where this was committed in the course of her employment over a lengthy period, and where a term of imprisonment, albeit suspended, has been imposed.
17. The Panel has therefore determined that a finding of impairment is in the public interest in order to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour, and to maintain confidence in the profession and regulatory process.
Decision on Sanction
18. In reaching its decision, the Panel considered all the evidence and information before it. This included information and submissions from the Registrant at the adjourned hearing of 10 January 2020 and also the additional information and submissions made by her at the resumed hearing. The Panel also considered submissions from Mr Millin at the adjourned hearing on 10 January 2020 and those from Ms Sheridan at the resumed hearing. It had regard to the HCPC’s Sanctions Policy. It had exercised the principle of proportionality at all times. It accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
19. Mr Millin made no submissions in regard to particular sanctions. He referred to the Policy and emphasised that the purpose of a sanction is not to punish a Registrant, but rather to protect the Public and to address public interest concerns. Ms Sheridan made no further submissions to those made by Mr Millin. She commented that the additional material from the Registrant did not significantly alter the situation as at 10 January 2020.
20. It appeared to the Panel that, as at the hearing of 10 January 2020, the Registrant again did not adequately address the serious criminality of her actions which brought her before the Court and her Regulator. The Registrant’s submissions to the Panel concentrated only on clinical matters and her academic and career intentions.
21. The Panel found these to be aggravating features:
• The serious nature of the criminal conviction as marked by the lengthy prison sentence imposed, albeit suspended.
• The substantial amount of money involved, some £38,000.
• The Breach of Trust – the Registrant was in a position of responsibility employed as a Customer Service Adviser at Argos where she had knowledge of her employer’s financial procedures which she abused.
• The fraud was pre-planned and relatively sophisticated in the misuse of electronic gift cards intended for customers, her own bank cards and those of family members to obtain refunds where there had been no previous sale transactions.
• The serious and persistent acts of dishonesty occurred on some 43 occasions over a lengthy period – December 2016 – March 2018.
• The Registrant’s actions could have implicated other persons, including her family and friends, unwittingly in her dishonesty.
• At the time of the fraudulent acts the Registrant demonstrated a total lack of insight into the effect upon her employer and those who might without their knowledge be implicated.
22. The Panel found these to be mitigating features:
• There have been no previous findings against the Registrant either before her Regulator, the HCPTS or the Criminal Courts.
• The Registrant’s early admissions to her Employer, to the Police, and to the HCPC, to whom she self-referred, albeit only after her fraudulent transactions had been discovered.
• The Registrant’s guilty plea at her trial.
• The Registrant was described by the Judge in his sentencing remarks as immature at the time of the fraud and having acted under pressure from another. Further, that the money was not obtained for the Registrant’s own benefit, and was subsequently repaid by her in full, albeit only following her interview by Police.
• The Registrant’s expression of remorse and her apology to her Employer.
• The Registrant has displayed some degree of insight into the serious nature and possible implications of her fraudulent conduct.
• The risk of repetition, as described by the judge, is low.
23. The Panel first considered whether to take no action. However, this was a serious offence of dishonesty and the period for which the sentence of imprisonment was suspended does not expire until 27th March 2021. It would be inappropriate to allow the Registrant to practise unrestricted until the suspension period is at an end. Furthermore, although the Registrant does not pose a threat to Public safety, the public interest concerns arising from the serious nature of the offence demand a sanction.
24. The Panel then considered a Caution Order. However, the serious nature of the offence is such that this would be inappropriate and insufficient to address Public Interest concerns.
25. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order, but in the light of the serious nature of the offence, there are no conditions which would be appropriate or sufficient to address Public Interest concerns.
26. The Panel then considered a Suspension Order, but again it concluded that such an order would be insufficient to address the serious nature of the offence.
27. The Panel therefore considered a Striking Off Order. It is aware that this is a sanction of last resort, for serious acts, including those of Breach of Trust and Criminal convictions for dishonesty.
28. The Panel referred to the Policy which states that a Striking Off Order should be used where the nature of the offence is such that any lesser sanction would lack a deterrent effect or would undermine confidence in the profession or in the Regulatory process.
29. The Panel had in mind the aggravating features referred to above, but despite the mitigating features, it determined that the only sufficient, appropriate and proportionate sanction is that of a Striking Off Order.