Mr Stephen J Rooney

Profession: Paramedic

Registration Number: PA30856

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 18/01/2021 End: 17:00 21/01/2021

Location: This hearing will take place virtually

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Caution

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Allegation

Whilst registered as a Paramedic with the Health and Care Professions Council:

1. On 29 January 2018, you reported for and commenced your shift whilst under the effects of alcohol.

2. On 26 March 2019 at Armagh Magistrates’ Court you were convicted of driving a motor vehicle on a road after consuming so much alcohol that the proportion of it in your blood exceeded the prescribed limit, contrary to Article 16 (1) (a) of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.

3. The matter set out in paragraph 1 constitutes misconduct.

4. By reason of your misconduct your fitness to practice is impaired.

5. By reason of your conviction as set out in paragraph 2 your fitness to practise is impaired.

 

Finding

Preliminary Matters


At the commencement of the hearing the Panel was asked to consider three preliminary matters, namely:
a. An application by the HCPC to amend the particulars of the allegation.
b. An application by the Registrant that the matter should be transferred to the Health Committee.
c. An application by the Registrant that the entirety of the hearing should be conducted in private.
The submissions in relation to the two applications made on behalf of the Registrant were made in private.


Application to amend the allegation


2. As referred to this Committee by the Investigating Committee by its decision made on 3 September 2019, particular 1 of the allegation was couched in the following terms, “On 29 January 2018, you reported for and commenced your shift.” The HCPC sought to amend that element of the allegation to add the contentions that the Registrant reported for work and commenced his shift having consumed alcohol that day and/or smelling of alcohol. No objection was made to the proposed amendment by or on behalf of the Registrant and the Panel considered that the additions were appropriate, accorded with the evidence that the HCPC wished to adduce and would not result in any prejudice to the Registrant. The Panel therefore acceded to the HCPC’s application to amend.


The application to transfer to the Health Committee.


3. The application was refused. Accordingly, the application was refused, though in refusing the application the Panel acknowledged that appropriate regard would be had to the health issues relied upon in support of the application when the issues of conduct were considered.
The application that the entirety of the hearing should be conducted in private.


4. The Panel considered that a sufficient distinction could be drawn between these confidential and non-confidential issues to require the application to be refused so as to ensure that the principle of open justice would be maintained, and as the conviction was already in the public domain, the application was refused.


5. Before the Presenting Officer opened the case the allegation as amended was read into the record and the Registrant was offered the opportunity to respond to it. On behalf of the Registrant, Ms Hewitt stated that the Registrant admitted the factual elements of the case, namely each limb of particular 1 and the conviction alleged in particular 2. On the basis that they would be matters for the Panel to decide, no response was made on behalf of the Registrant with regard to the contentions that the matters in particular 1 constituted misconduct or impairment of his fitness to practise.


6. Although not the subject of an application that required the Panel to reach a decision, it is nevertheless convenient to record at this point that at the commencement of the case, Ms Hewitt stated that the Registrant took no issue in relation to hearsay elements of the evidence presented against him by the HCPC, and that he did not object to the HCPC producing evidence that there had been occasions before 29 January 2018 when his attendance at work smelling of alcohol had been raised with him.


Background


7. At the time relevant to particular 1, the Registrant was employed by the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service (“NIAS”) as a Relief Paramedic.


8. On 29 January 2018 the Registrant was due to work a night shift commencing at 8:30pm. The HCPC’s case is that when, at approximately 8:15pm, he arrived at the ambulance station from which he was due to work, his driving was observed by a Paramedic Colleague, DC, to be erratic. DC then noted that the Registrant smelled strongly of alcohol. The Registrant was due to work that evening with an Emergency Medical Technician (“EMT”), to whom DC was able to express her concerns over the Registrant’s condition. DC was then required to attend an emergency call, but on the way to that call alerted a Supervisor by text message.


9. GB is a Paramedic who on a number of occasions had been Acting Station Officer, one such period including 29 January 2018. The Supervisor who had been contacted by DC contacted in turn GB. At this stage the Registrant, with his EMT colleague, was attending a red priority call. In company with the on call Officer, at approximately 10:00pm GB met the Registrant at the hospital Emergency Department who was attending a patient. After asking the Registrant’s colleague to take over attendance upon the patient, GB spoke to the Registrant. GB described the Registrant as having a glazed look, walking slowly in a slightly unsteady manner.He could also smell alcohol on the Registrant. When asked by GB if he had been drinking, the Registrant replied that he had drunk the day before and had a “hair of the dog” at lunchtime that day. The Registrant was stood down from his work and was driven home.


10. The Registrant was subsequently suspended by the NIAS while an internal investigation was undertaken. Some time later he was re-deployed within NIAS as an Ambulance Care Attendant.


11. The incident that gave rise to the conviction occurred on 28 April 2018. At approximately 2:00pm the Registrant was driving his daughter to a gymnastics session when he lost control of his car. The vehicle suffered damage, coming to rest on its roof in a hedge. The Registrant left the scene of the accident and returned to his home. Having failed to find the Registrant in the area of the accident, the Police Officers visited his home at 3:10pm. After being taken to a Police Station the Registrant’s breath was tested for alcohol, and the results of that test resulted in a sample of his blood being taken at 5:45pm. Subsequent analysis of his blood revealed that it contained 139 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, a level that exceeded the lawful maximum permitted of 80mg of alcohol.


12. The criminal allegation that the Registrant was guilty of driving with excess alcohol was not concluded until 26 March 2019, when, having pleaded guilty to the charge, the Registrant was fined £250 and disqualified for driving for 16 months, with the option of reducing that period of disqualification to 12 months upon completion of an approved course.


Decision on facts


13. The HCPC called two witnesses to give evidence before the Panel, namely DC and GB. Their involvement in the events of the evening of 29 January 2018 has already been described. In addition to the witness statements made by these two witnesses for the purposes of the present proceedings, the HCPC hearing bundle contained earlier accounts made by them in the context of the NIAS investigation. Furthermore, that hearing bundle contained the statements of a number of other individuals who were interviewed for the purposes of that internal investigation, as well as the body (but not the conclusion) of the investigation report itself. Additionally, in relation to conviction, the HCPC’s bundle of documents contained the Certificate of Conviction along with witness statements made by Police Officers who were involved in the matter as well as the medical practitioner who took the sample of the Registrant’s blood.


14. It has already been stated that at the commencement of the hearing the Registrant accepted the entirety of the factual contentions advanced against him, an acceptance that was reinforced when he gave his own evidence. It followed that in this case an assessment of the witnesses did not have the importance it would in a case where there were disputed issues to be decided by the Panel. Nevertheless, the Panel would wish to record that it found both DC and GB to be very impressive witnesses. They both gave their evidence in a professional manner, demonstrably seeking to help the Panel to arrive at a proper conclusion. In expressing concerns about the Registrant’s condition on 29 January 2018, both were motivated by the entirely proper consideration of concern for the safety of patients, colleagues as well as the Registrant himself. There was no trace of malice in their actions either on 29 January 2018 or in the evidence they gave before the Panel. It is also appropriate for the Panel to record that Ms Hewitt explicitly acknowledged the absence of malice to the witnesses themselves.


15. The Registrant gave evidence before the Panel. As this section of the determination is confined to the factual elements of the case, it is sufficient to record at this point that the Registrant confirmed his acceptance of the factual particulars and that the Panel found him to be an entirely credible witness. The Panel will return to the Registrant’s evidence and its assessment of him and that evidence when the decision on current impairment of fitness to practise is explained.


16. In deciding whether the facts alleged by particular 1 were proven, the Panel had regard not only to the Registrant’s admissions, but also to all of the evidence (including that of DC and GB) produced by the HCPC. The conclusion of the Panel was that each element of particular 1 was proven.


17. Similarly, with regard to the conviction, the Panel considered all of the evidence and concluded that particular 2 was proven.

Decision on statutory grounds


18. It was necessary for the Panel to decide if the matters contained within particular 1 represented a falling short of accepted standards that were so serious that it would be appropriate to categorise them as misconduct.


19. In turning up for work and going out to attend a patient having that day consumed, and being under the influence of, alcohol, the Registrant committed breaches of the HCPC’s Standards of conduct, performance and ethics in four important respects, namely:


• Standard 6.1, “You must take all reasonable steps to reduce the risk of harm to service users, carers, and colleagues as far as possible.”


• Standard 6.2, “You must not do anything… which could put the health or safety of a service user, carer or colleague at unacceptable risk.”


• Standard 6.3, “You must make changes to how you practise or stop practising if your physical or mental health may affect your performance or judgement or put others at risk of harm for any reason.”


• Standard 9.1, “You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession.”


20. As he himself acknowledged in his evidence before the Panel, the Registrant put patients, colleagues and himself at risk of very serious harm by his behaviour. The fact that harm did not materialise was purely fortuitous (again, as the Registrant acknowledged) and therefore in no way lessens the seriousness of his behaviour. So serious was his behaviour, the Panel was satisfied that it was appropriate to categorise it as misconduct notwithstanding the fact that the finding is based solely upon the events of 29 January 2018.


21. In relation to the allegation based on the conviction, the finding that the conviction was factually established necessarily had the consequence that the statutory ground in relation to that allegation was made out.


22. These findings had the consequence that it was necessary for the Panel to consider the issue of current impairment of fitness to practise.


Decision on Impairment


23. It followed from the Panel’s finding that the statutory grounds of misconduct and conviction were established that it was necessary to consider the issue of current impairment of fitness to practise arising in relation to each of those statutory grounds. Nevertheless, the Panel considered that in this particular case the fact that inappropriate and excessive alcohol consumption underpinned both findings, meant that it was not necessary to draw any distinction between the two statutory grounds.


24. Before turning to consider the issues that are relevant, it is convenient to state clearly what this case does not involve. No issue as to the Registrant’s knowledge and skills arise from the circumstances of this case. All of the information received by the Panel suggests that the Registrant has practised as a Paramedic competently. Indeed, when GB (the acting Station Officer called as a witness by the HCPC) was asked by Ms Hewitt how he regarded the Registrant’s clinical skills, GB’s reply was that he would let the Registrant treat his own children. Accordingly, the Panel did not consider it necessary to include the Registrant’s clinical ability in its decision on impairment of fitness to practise. The Panel reminds the Registrant that if he returns to practise as a Paramedic, in addition to any re-training requirements imposed by NIAS, the fact that he has not worked as a Paramedic for a period in excess of two years will engage the requirements of the HCPC imposed on practitioners returning to practise.


25. Before explaining its decision on impairment of fitness to practise, it is necessary for the Panel to summarise the evidence he gave and to explain the assessment of the Registrant it made.


26. The Panel found the Registrant to be an impressively honest witness. He was thoughtful, self-critical and entirely open. His openness extended to disclosing matters relating to his past behaviour that would not otherwise have been known.


27. The Registrant explained in private session the background to his behaviour.


28. A striking feature of the Registrant’s evidence was the genuine horror he expressed at his former behaviour, acknowledging the danger he presented to patients and others, as well as the extent to which he let down his colleagues and his profession. In addition to the oral evidence of the Registrant submitted a bundle of documents, the contents of which were largely confidential.


29. The Panel reached its decision on current impairment of fitness to practise by considering separately the personal and public components relevant to that issue.
The personal component.


30. It has already been stated that the Panel found the Registrant to be an entirely credible witness. That fact is relevant to the conclusion reached by the Panel on this aspect.


31. The Panel carefully considered the evidence it received in private, and having done so concluded that the risk of repetition was not significant.


32. Accordingly, the Panel concluded that there is no personal component current impairment of fitness to practise. The Panel then considered the public component.


The public component.


33. In the view of the Panel this consideration involved somewhat wider issues than those that were relevant to the personal component. The fact that the Panel concluded that the risk of repetition did not warrant a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise resulted in the Panel concluding that the future risk of harm to patients was not a consideration that justified a finding.


34. However, after very careful consideration, the Panel concluded that the issues of misconduct and the conviction are so serious that a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise is required to underscore their gravity, and that is so notwithstanding the absence of a significant risk of recurrence that is the consequence of the way in which the Registrant has turned his life around. In the view of the Panel this conclusion would have been necessary even if the incident on 29 January 2018 had come out of the blue. The fact that there had been earlier occasions when the Registrant had been spoken to about alcohol use only serves to make that finding more necessary. To have concluded the case without a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise would have been to fail to declare and uphold proper professional standards, and it would have damaged public confidence in the Paramedic profession. For these reasons the Panel made a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise in relation to the public component.


35. The Panel’s finding that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired in respect of the public component has the consequence that it is necessary to consider the issue of sanction.


Sanction


36. After the Panel handed down its decision on the allegations and allowed time for the written determination to be considered, the parties made submissions on the issue of sanction.


37. On behalf of the HCPC, the Presenting Officer identified the proper purpose of a sanction and took the Panel to passages of the HCPC’s Sanctions Policy that she submitted to be relevant to the decision. Whilst acknowledging that decision would be one for the Panel’s discretion, the Presenting Officer invited the consideration of a conditions of practice order.


38. Ms Hewitt reminded the Panel of the matters that stand to the credit of the Registrant, and which have already been identified by the Panel in explaining its decision on the personal component of impairment of fitness to practise. Ms Hewitt reminded the Panel that the Registrant had realistically recognised the seriousness of his actions. She also submitted the Registrant had overcome by himself many hurdles, and that being the case, she urged the Panel not to place additional hurdles in the path of a man who had worked so hard. As to the order that should be made, Ms Hewitt urged the Panel to consider taking the step of making no order, submitting that the fact that the fitness to practise proceedings had taken place and resulted in a finding against the Registrant, was in itself a significant marker of the seriousness of the matter. Lest the Panel did not agree with that submission, Ms Hewitt addressed the sanctions that might be sequentially considered.


39. When reaching its decision the Panel reminded itself that a sanction is never to be imposed to punish a registrant against whom a finding has been made. Rather, a sanction should only be imposed to the extent that one is required to offer a proper degree of public protection, to maintain public confidence in the registered profession and the regulation of it, and to declare and uphold proper professional standards. As the finding that an allegation is well founded does not of itself require the imposition of a sanction, it follows that the first question whether the particular circumstances of the case necessitate the imposition of a sanction. If they do, then the available sanctions must be considered in an ascending order of seriousness to ensure that no more restrictive sanction is imposed than the circumstances demand. As the findings are founded on misconduct and the conviction, the whole sanction range is available. In reaching its decision the Panel has had careful regard to the terms of the HCPC’s Sanctions Policy.


40. In its decision on the allegation the Panel has explained why it has taken the view that the issues being considered are serious. Equally, in explaining its decision on the personal component of current impairment of fitness to practise, the Panel has very clearly identified the matters which it considers stand to the credit of the Registrant. The Panel does not consider that clarity would be gained by repeating what has already been stated, but it is important to stress that all of these factors have been considered in reaching the decision on sanction.


41. The Panel was of the clear view that the findings made against the Registrant are too serious to result in no sanction being imposed. It followed that it was necessary to consider the available sanctions.


42. When the Panel considered whether a caution order would be an appropriate disposal it considered the section of the Sanctions Policy where that sanction is discussed. Paragraphs 101 and 102 are in these terms:


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. A caution order should be considered in cases where the nature of the allegations mean that meaningful practice restrictions cannot be imposed, but a suspension of practice order would be disproportionate. In these cases, panels should provide a clear explanation of why it has chosen a non-restrictive sanction, even though the panel may have found there to be a risk of repetition (albeit low).


43. So far as the matters referred to in paragraph 101 are concerned, it will be clear from the Panel’s finding on the allegation that it is satisfied that there is a low risk of repetition, that the Registrant has shown good insight and that he has also undertaken appropriate remediation. It is in relation to the first mentioned matter, “the issue is isolated, limited, or relatively minor in nature” that the suggested circumstances in which a caution order should be considered appropriate are less obviously present in the instant case. The findings are not minor in nature, although Ms Hewitt drew the Panel’s attention to the linking word “or” and suggested that the issue was isolated in the sense that although more than one matter is included in the Panel’s findings, nevertheless they had a single cause, namely alcohol consumption.


44. The Panel considered that the most effective way in deciding whether a caution order would be appropriate would be to consider whether a sanction that would necessarily have to be imposed in the event of a caution order being rejected would be more appropriate. The Panel therefore considered whether a conditions of practice order should be imposed. The clear conclusion of the Panel was that a conditions of practice order would not be appropriate. The reason for that decision was not because of the measures NIAS would undoubtedly put in place in the event of the Registrant returning to work as a Paramedic, nor was it because the Registrant would have to comply with the HCPC’s Returning to Practice requirements in the event of such a return. Rather, the reason why the Panel was satisfied that a conditions of practice order would not be appropriate was that the low risk of repetition meant that the protection measures that would otherwise be required by the imposition of conditions are not needed in this case. For the avoidance of doubt, this factor would make a suspension order even less appropriate.


45. The finding reached by the Panel in relation to the inappropriateness of conditions of practice had the consequence that the Panel was satisfied that a caution order is indeed appropriate in the present case notwithstanding the seriousness of the case and the fact that there was more than one incident. It should not be thought that this was a conclusion to which the Panel was reluctantly drawn. A caution order registered against the registration of a professional person is a significant matter. The Registrant already is fully accepting of the seriousness of his actions, but the presence of a caution order will serve to underline that recognition he already has. The Panel is satisfied that in the present case a caution order will be sufficient to reassure the public of the seriousness of the findings made and to declare and uphold proper professional standards.


46. When it considered the appropriate length of the caution order the Panel reminded itself that the minimum period of such an order is 12 months and the maximum 5 years. In view of the seriousness of the findings, the Panel determined that notwithstanding the fact that the matters occurred some years ago and have had for some years past negative consequences for the Registrant, a necessary, but at the same time, sufficient period is 3 years.

Order

ORDER: The Registrar is directed to annotate the register entry of Mr Stephen J Rooney with a caution which is to remain for a period of 3 years from the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

A Final Hearing of the conduct and competence committee took place from 18-20 January 2021 and a 3 year Caution Order was imposed.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mr Stephen J Rooney

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
18/01/2021 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Caution