Miss Dionne Champion
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Whilst registered with the Health and Care Professions Council as an Operating Department Practitioner:
1. On 22 January 2018 at Exeter Magistrates’ Court you were convicted of having committed fraud between 2 May 2016 and 13 March 2017 in that you dishonestly failed to disclose to Exeter County Council that Person A had not moved into your address, which you were under a legal duty to disclose intending, by that failure, to make a gain, namely the payment of rent, for yourself.
2. By reason of your conviction, your fitness to practise as an Operating Department Practitioner is impaired.
Service and Proceeding in Absence
1. The Panel considered the email dated 4 August 2020 addressed to the Registrant at her registered email address with the HCPC informing her of the date, time and location of the hearing. Proof of delivery was received by the HCPC email system and the Registrant has responded to the notice of hearing. The Panel concluded that this constituted good service of notice of hearing and complied with the requirements for service during the current pandemic.
2. The Registrant was not in attendance or represented. The Panel considered Mr Olphert’s application to proceed in the Registrant’s absence. He advised that the Registrant had e-mailed the HCPC on 1 September 2020 in response to the HCPC email inviting her to attend the hearing the HCPC. The Registrant had been advised of the possibility of the Panel proceeding in her absence. The Registrant had responded on 1 September 2020 advising that her partner was unwell and she emailed the HCPC again at 17.50 on 1 September 2020 to advise that she would not be attending the hearing.
3. Mr Olphert submitted that the Panel proceed in the Registrant’s absence. She has not asked for an adjournment. He referred the Panel to the HCPTS Practice Note on Proceeding in Absence and to the case law. He asked the Panel to consider the nature and circumstances of the absence of the Registrant and submitted that the Registrant had voluntarily absented herself and that it was in the public interest to proceed.
4. The Panel is aware that its discretion to proceed in absence is one which should be exercised with the care. The Legal Assessor referred the Panel to Adeogba v GMC  EWCA Civ 162 which makes clear that the first question the Panel should ask is whether all reasonable efforts have been taken to serve the Registrant with notice. Thereafter, if the Panel is satisfied about notice, the discretion whether or not to proceed must be exercised having regard to all the circumstances of which the Panel is aware, with fairness to the Registrant being a prime consideration, but with fairness to the HCPC and the interests of the public also taken into account.
5. The Panel considered all the circumstances and noted there has been no request for an adjournment. It noted the emails from the Registrant, including where she clearly states that she will not be attending. The Panel noted that she has engaged sporadically with the HCPC and she has not requested an adjournment. The Panel balanced fairness to the Registrant with fairness to the HCPC and the public interest and concluded that the Registrant has voluntarily absented herself. There is a public interest in making progress and the Panel noted that this case relates to a conviction in January 2018. In all the circumstances the Panel was satisfied that it is fair and appropriate to proceed in the Registrant’s absence.
6. Dionne Champion (“the Registrant”) is registered with the HCPC as an Operating Department Practitioner. On 19 January 2018, the Registrant notified the HCPC of an upcoming court appearance for dishonestly claiming that a second person had moved into her property in order to obtain Housing Benefit payments from Exeter City Council.
7. On 22 January 2018, the Registrant pleaded guilty at Exeter Magistrates Court and was convicted of fraud. She was sentenced to 15 weeks imprisonment, suspended for 12 months. The sentence has now expired.
8. Mr Olphert opened the case for the HCPC and set out the background to the case. He provided the Panel with a written Submission. With fairness in mind he also provided the Panel with a copy of the Registrant’s written representations sent to the HCPC at the investigation stage. He referred the Panel to the summary provided by the Police and to the Memorandum of Conviction which was conclusive proof of the conviction. He indicated that the HCPC did not present any further evidence or witnesses and referred the Panel to the HCPTS Practice Note on Conviction and Caution Allegations. He reminded the Panel that the burden of proof rests with the HCPC.
9. Mr Olphert’s written Submission referred the Panel to the HCPTS Practice Note on Finding Fitness to Practise Impaired. He invited the Panel to find that the Registrant is impaired, on both the personal and public interest grounds. He reminded the Panel that the conviction was for fraud and hence includes dishonesty. He submitted that the Registrant has not shown sufficient insight into the conviction and hence the personal component was engaged. He submitted that the public interest would be undermined were there not to be a finding of impairment.
10. The Panel heard and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. He reminded the Panel of the need to assess the evidence and to apply the balance of probabilities. He reminded the Panel that in terms of the HCPC rules the certified Memorandum of Conviction is significant as Rule 10(1)(d) of the relevant procedural rules provides that:
“Where the 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”.
11. The Legal Assessor referred the Panel to the HCPTS Practice Note on Finding Fitness to Practise is Impaired. He referred to the authoritative guidance in CHRE v Grant  EWHC 927 (Admin) and reminded the Panel to consider the important issues of insight, remediation and the risk of repetition presented by the Registrant. He also stressed the importance of the public interest in its considerations.
12. The Panel carefully considered all of the evidence and the submissions. The Panel heard and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was aware that on matters of fact, as distinct from issues of impairment, the burden of proof rests on the HCPC and that the standard of proof was the civil one, the balance of probabilities.
Decision on Fact & Ground
13. The Panel considered the evidence. It accepted the certified Memorandum of Conviction as proof of the conviction and the findings of fact upon which it was based. The Panel found Particular 1 proved on the balance of probabilities.
Decision on Impairment
14. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired by reason of the conviction. It kept in mind the central importance of the protection of the public, the wider public interest and the guidance provided in the Grant case. The Panel was mindful of the need to safeguard public confidence both in the profession and the HCPC.
15. The Panel was mindful this is a conviction for fraud which is inherently a crime of dishonesty. It considered the Registrant’s position and her earlier submissions to HCPC at the investigation stage. The Panel found that the Registrant has not demonstrated well developed insight. She appears to have focussed on her own position. When referring to the court case as “terrifying” she did not appear to take full responsibility for her conduct and grasp that it was dishonest. The Panel was concerned that the Registrant in her explanation seemed to minimise her behaviour and distance herself from the dishonest and fraudulent scheme that she was a central part of. She also sought to portray herself somewhat as a victim of circumstances rather than the perpetrator of a fraud.
16. The Panel accepts that a conviction for fraud is not easy to remediate, but it is remediable. It also acknowledges that the Registrant’s competence as an ODP is not in question, although given the conviction, her honesty is. The Panel concluded that the Registrant has not sufficiently and adequately demonstrated that she accepts full responsibility for her dishonest behaviour which led to the conviction, its seriousness and the impact on colleagues, the profession and the public. The Panel concluded that the Registrant has not shown sufficient insight and reflection into her conviction and her underlying dishonesty, and she has not provided any information of any steps she has taken to remediate her practice.
17. The Panel concluded that the lack of insight was a concern and gave rise to a risk of repetition. The Panel concluded that the Registrant has in the past and is liable in the future to act dishonestly and that currently her fitness to practise is impaired on the personal aspect of impairment.
18. The Panel next considered the public component of impairment. The Registrant has been convicted of fraud involving public funds being dishonestly claimed in housing benefit. The Panel concluded, given the nature and gravity of the conviction, that public confidence in the profession and the regulator would be undermined, and the public would be surprised and concerned, were the Registrant’s fitness to practice not to be found to be impaired.
19. The Panel decided that in order to maintain public confidence in the profession, and in the regulator, that in the circumstances of this case is was necessary and appropriate to find the Registrant’s fitness to practise currently impaired on the public interest aspect of impairment. That finding was also required to declare and uphold proper standards.
Submissions on Sanction
20. The Panel heard from Mr Olphert for the HCPC. He referred to the HCPC’s Sanctions Policy (SP) and reminded the Panel to consider the degree of public protection required and stressed the proportionality of any sanction to be imposed. He submitted that the Panel should consider the sanctions in ascending order and take the minimum action necessary to protect the public.
21. Mr Olphert remained neutral as regards the sanction to be imposed and made no submissions as any particular sanction. He reminded the Panel about the importance of maintaining the reputation of the profession and public confidence.
22. Mr Olphert suggested that a significant aggravating feature was the dishonesty in the conviction. He submitted that the absence of developed insight, remorse or remediation was also an aggravating feature. He referred to para 80 of the SP which deals with convictions cases.
23. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor to consider the SP. He reminded it to consider any sanction in ascending order and to apply the least restrictive sanction necessary to protect the public. The Panel should act proportionately and consider any aggravating and mitigating factors and keep in mind the public interest.
Decision on Sanction
24. 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 and carefully considered the guidance in the SP. The Panel had regard to its findings and approached sanction, beginning with the least restrictive first, bearing in mind the need for proportionality and balancing the interests of the Registrant with the public interest.
25. The Panel considered the mitigating features were that the behaviour did not take place in a professional context and no service users were harmed or placed at risk of harm. The Registrant has expressed some remorse and has apologised. So far as it is aware, the Registrant has had no previous fitness to practice concerns.
26. The Panel considered that the aggravating features were the lack of insight by the Registrant and that the conviction was in respect of a fraud over a sustained period of time.
27. The Panel considered that the dishonesty involved in the conviction is a significant aggravating factor. It was mindful of paragraph 57 of the SP dealing with seriousness, including dishonesty. This was a single conviction but it was sustained behaviour which covered a period from 2 May 2016 to 13 March 2017, as detailed in the allegation and stated in the conviction. The Registrant took an active role making the claims and moving the money as each payment was made. The Registrant did not make early admissions but only disclosed the matter to her employer after her conviction. She disclosed the matter to the HCPC on 19 January 2018 only days before she pleaded guilty.
28. The Panel approached the ladder of 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 allegation found proved and the finding of impairment. Further, these would not be adequate given the wider public interest of maintaining confidence in both the profession and the regulatory process. Neither order is appropriate or proportionate in the circumstances of this case
29. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The allegation found proved is serious and represents a breach of the fundamental standards of the profession and the standards expected of a member of the profession. The Panel has found that the Registrant has shown limited insight, remorse and remediation. In these circumstances the Panel does not consider that a Conditions of Practice Order would be adequate, sufficient or proportionate. In any event, no workable, realistic or appropriate conditions could be formulated to deal with the behaviour underlying the conviction and adequately protect the public and the wider public interest.
30. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. It has found a serious allegation proved. The Registrant has demonstrated limited insight, limited remorse and there is no evidence of remediation of her behaviour. However, the Panel noted that she did apologise and has expressed regret for bringing her profession and her employer into disrepute. Whilst she has shown limited insight, there is nothing to suggest that the Registrant is unwilling or unable to remedy her practise or that she has repeated her conduct. The Panel was also mindful that the Registrant’s behaviour, whilst serious, did not take place in a professional context and her behaviour did not harm any service users or place service users at risk of harm.
31. In all the circumstances the Panel concluded that the public would be protected, and the public interest safeguarded, by the imposition of a 12 month Suspension Order. The Panel decided that a Suspension Order is proportionate and adequately reflects the seriousness of the Panel’s findings. It sends an appropriate message to the public and the profession that the behaviour found is totally unacceptable. The Panel has decided to impose the Suspension Order for the maximum period in order to reflect the seriousness of its findings.
32. The Panel carefully considered whether to impose a Striking Off Order at this time. It was mindful that Strike Off is a sanction of last resort and the Panel considered that, in all the circumstances of this case, that Strike Off would be disproportionate as it would go further than was necessary to protect the public and would be penal.
33. The Panel considers that a future reviewing Panel might be assisted by the Registrant providing a full, reflective written piece demonstrating well developed insight and remediation. Any relevant references or testimonials may also be helpful.
ORDER: That the Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Dionne Champion for a period of 12 months from the date this order comes into effect.
Interim Order Application
1. In light of its findings on Sanction, the Panel next considered an application by Mr Olphert for an Interim Suspension Order to cover the appeal period before the Sanction becomes operative.
2. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred it to the HCPTS Practice Note on Interim Orders and on Proceedings in Absence. He reminded the Panel that it should once again consider the issues of proceeding in absence. He reminded the Panel that an Interim Order must be necessary to protect the public, or be otherwise in the public interest. The Panel must act proportionately and balance the interests of the Registrant with the need to protect the public.
3. The Panel was mindful of its earlier findings and concluded that an Interim Order is necessary to protect the public in the appeal period. The Panel decided that that it would be wholly incompatible with its earlier findings and with the Suspension Order imposed to conclude that an Interim Suspension Order is not necessary for protection of the public or otherwise in the public interest.
4. Accordingly, the Panel concluded that an Interim Suspension Order should be imposed on both public protection and public interest grounds. It determined that it is appropriate that the Interim Suspension Order be imposed for a period of 18 months to cover the 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 when the appeal period expires.