Mrs Joanne Leach

: Social worker

: SW96119

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 11/08/2017 End: 17:00 11/08/2017

: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service (HCPTS), 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Suspended

Allegation

While registered as a Social Worker:

1. On 11 January 2016, you accepted a police caution for Theft.

2. By reason of your caution as set out in paragraph 1, your fitness to practise as a Social Worker is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters

Service and Proceeding in Absence

1. The Panel was satisfied that Notice of today’s hearing had been properly served on the Registrant at her registered address in terms of the rules of the Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee)(Procedure) Rules 2003 (“the Rules”) on 30 May 2017. The Panel next considered Miss Jones’s application to proceed in the Registrant’s absence.

2. Miss Jones referred to the Rules, the HCPC Practice Note on “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant” and to the case law. She advised the Panel that the Registrant is aware of today’s hearing as the Notice of hearing has been sent to her address on the HCPC Register. She reminded the Panel the Registrant had previously engaged up to the point of the Investigating Committee decision, but has not engaged with the HCPC since her letter to the HCPC on 11 December 2016.

3. Miss Jones told the Panel that the Registrant had sought to de-register from the Social Work part of the Register and had previously expressed an intention not to practise as a Social Worker in the future. However, on 11 December 2016 the Registrant had indicated in a letter to the HCPC that she would like an opportunity to be able to go back into Social Work. Nothing further has been received from the Registrant since that date, despite further contact being made by the HCPC. Miss Jones submitted that the Registrant is aware of the hearing and has not requested an adjournment or postponement. There was also a public interest in proceeding.

4. The Panel is aware that its discretion to proceed in absence is one which should be exercised with care. The Legal Assessor gave advice to the Panel and referred it to the HCPTS Practice Note on “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant” and to the case of GMC v Adeogba [2016] EWCA Civ 62. This makes clear that the first question the Panel should ask is whether all reasonable efforts have been taken to serve the practitioner with Notice. Thereafter, if the Panel is satisfied on 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 considered.

5. The Panel agreed to proceed in the Registrant’s absence as it is satisfied that it is fair and in the public interest to do so. In reaching this decision, the Panel noted that the Registrant has not asked for an adjournment and had not engaged with the HCPC since December 2016. The Panel consider that the Registrant has voluntarily absented herself. The Panel balanced fairness to the Registrant with fairness to the HCPC and the public interest. The Panel has also taken account of the fact that this is a final hearing and that an adjournment would serve no purpose. In these circumstances the Panel is satisfied that it is appropriate and fair to proceed in the Registrant’s absence. No adverse inference would be drawn from the absence of the Registrant.

Background

6. The Registrant was employed by Norfolk County Council (NCC) as a Social Worker. On 11 January 2016, the Registrant accepted a Police Caution for the offence of theft in relation to an incident regarding items taken from Sainsbury’s Supermarket totalling £491.00. The Registrant was referred to the HCPC by her employer, NCC, on 18 February 2016.

Submissions for the HCPC

7. Miss Jones set out her submissions on the facts in the allegation, grounds and impairment. She reminded the Panel the onus of proof, on the ‘balance of probabilities’, rested on the HCPC. She invited the Panel to find the facts proved.

8. Miss Jones referred the Panel to the bundle of exhibits, which included Norfolk Constabulary records regarding the Caution for theft accepted by the Registrant. She referred the Panel to the terms of the formal declaration accepting the Simple Caution signed by the Registrant on 11 January 2016. She also referred the Panel to the NCC papers in the bundle regarding the Registrant and the witness statement of the Security Guard at Sainsbury’s setting out his account of the theft. Miss Jones submitted that there were inconsistencies between the Registrant’s account to NCC and that of the Security Guard. She also pointed out the Police Officer’s notebook, which recorded the Registrant saying “I take full responsibility for what I’ve done”. This appears to be signed by the Registrant.

9. Miss Jones told the Panel that the Registrant has not denied she received a Simple Caution or challenged the statements made by the Security Officer or the Police Officer.

10. On impairment, Miss Jones referred the Panel to the HCPTS Practice Note on “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’” and to the case of CHRE v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin). She reminded the Panel of the public and personal component of impairment and the lack of evidence from the Registrant on insight, remorse or remediation. She reminded the Panel of the wider public interest. Miss Jones submitted this was a serious issue given it was a Simple Caution for theft, thus breaching a fundamental tenet of the profession, namely honesty and integrity. She invited the Panel to consider the nature and circumstances of the Caution. Miss Jones submitted a finding of impairment was required on both the public and private components.

11. Miss Jones submitted that the HCPC “Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics” 1, 3 and 13 were relevant and had been breached by the Registrant. She referred the Panel to the guidance in Yeong v GMC [2009] EWHC 1923 (Admin). She submitted that the present case indicated an attitudinal problem with the Registrant who displayed a lack of insight at the time, and since, given her initial denial to the Security Guard and the different account the Registrant gave to her employer. Miss Jones asked the Panel to consider the Registrant’s letter of 11 December 2016 and pointed out it did not contain an apology or demonstrate insight. There was an absence of evidence of any remediation.

12. Miss Jones also referred to the wider public interest and to the guidance in CHRE v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin).

13. The Legal Assessor reminded the Panel that when considering the facts, the standard of proof was on the ‘balance of probabilities’. He advised the Panel to consider all the evidence and that it should not go behind the Caution, which the Registrant had accepted on the terms set out in the declaration she had signed in the Simple Caution on 11 January 2016. On impairment, he referred the Panel to the guidance in the HCPTS Practice Note on “Finding that Fitness to Practise is ‘Impaired’” and in CHRE v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin) and he reminded the Panel of the central importance of protecting the public and the wider public interest.

Decision on Facts and Grounds

14. The Panel carefully assessed all the evidence it heard and the documents before it. It accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel was aware that on matters of fact, as distinct from issues of misconduct and impairment, the burden of proof rested on the HCPC and that the standard of proof was the ‘balance of probabilities’.

15. In the circumstances the Panel accepted the evidence in the Simple Caution Declaration signed by the Registrant, the statements from the signed statements from the Security Guard and the Police Officer. The Registrant has not denied she accepted a Simple Caution for theft of goods nor has she challenged the statements of the Security Guard or Police Officer. The Panel accordingly found particular 1 of the allegation proved.

16. By virtue of having found the facts proved, the Panel found the grounds proved by reason of the Caution.

Finding on Impairment

17. The Panel next considered whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired by reason of her Caution. It kept in mind the central importance of the protection of the public, the wider public interest and the guidance provided in CHRE v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin). The Registrant acted dishonestly in the theft of goods.

18. The Panel considered the HCPC “Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics” (2012) which were those applicable at the time of the allegation. It found that Standards 3 and 13 were breached by the Registrant:

3 You must keep high standards of personal conduct.

13 You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession. She breached fundamental tenets of her profession; that is, honesty and integrity.

19. The Registrant chose not to attend this hearing or make any submissions beyond those noted by the Panel in her letter to the HCPC of 11 December 2016. The Panel had no evidence as to the Registrant’s current circumstances and no evidence of insight, remorse or any steps taken by the Registrant to remediate her fitness to practise. The Panel has seen no evidence of any apology from the Registrant. The Panel noted that the Registrant gave different explanations about the incident to the Security Guard, Police and then to her employer, although the Panel has noted the Registrant accepted the Simple Caution.

20. In all the circumstances, the Panel was unable to fully assess the risk of repetition. It determined that in the absence of evidence of any insight, remorse and/or any remediation that the Registrant continues to present a real risk of repetition of the behaviour giving rise to the Caution.

21. The Panel was mindful of the public interest, the need to protect the public and the seriousness of the allegation, involving theft and dishonesty. It considered what a member of the public might make of the Registrant’s conduct and the effect that may have on the reputation of the profession. Her actions will have damaged the reputation of the profession and undermined public confidence in the profession of Social Work.

22. In these circumstances, the Panel determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Decision on Sanction

HCPC Submissions

23. Miss Jones reminded the Panel of the terms of the HCPC “Indicative Sanctions Policy” and the need to bear in mind the public interest and to act proportionately. She submitted that all sanctions were available to it and it was a matter for the Panel. She submitted that the aggravating feature was that this was a criminal offence breaching fundamental tenets of the profession. She mentioned the Registrant’s letter of 11 December 2016 as providing some possible mitigating factors.

24. The Legal Assessor referred the Panel to the Indicative Sanctions Policy and reminded it to act proportionately. He reminded the Panel of paragraph 16, which states that the Panel’s role is “not to punish a registrant twice for the same offence”. He advised the Panel to consider sanctions in ascending order and to apply the least restrictive sanction necessary to protect the public and the public interest. The Panel should also consider any aggravating and mitigating factors, and bear in mind the public interest and that the primary purpose of sanction is protection of the public.

Decision

25. The Panel approached the determination of sanction beginning with the least restrictive first and bearing in mind the need for proportionality. The Panel noted the Registrant’s letter of 11 December 2016 and that this matter concerned behaviour which occurred outside her role as a social worker.

26. 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. There was limited evidence of insight, remorse or remediation from the Registrant. Those sanctions would not be adequate to protect the public or to satisfy the wider public interest in maintaining confidence in both the profession and the regulatory process. Neither order was appropriate or proportionate in the circumstances of this case.

27. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order. The allegation found proved is serious, involving theft and dishonesty. The Panel had no information before it as to the Registrant’s current circumstances. In these circumstances the Panel could not formulate workable, realistic and proportionate conditions of practice. In any event, such an order would not protect the public, satisfy the public interest, or maintain public confidence in the profession or the Regulator.

28. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order. The Registrant has provided no evidence of insight, remorse or remediation in respect of her behaviour and she has not engaged with her Regulator in respect of this hearing. The allegation found proved is a serious, criminal matter involving dishonesty. The Panel carefully considered the Indicative Sanctions Policy at paragraph 41, which indicates, “where there are no psychological or other difficulties preventing the registrant from understanding and seeking to remedy the failings, then suspension may be appropriate.” Mindful of the lack of evidence from the Registrant and proportionality, the Panel has determined that a 12 month Suspension Order would adequately protect the public and the wider public interest.

29. The Panel considered that in all the circumstances a Striking Off Order would be disproportionate at this time and would go further than necessary to protect the public and the public interest.

Order

That the Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Mrs Joanne Leach for a period of 12 months from the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

The order imposed today will apply from 8 September 2017.

This order will be reviewed again before its expiry on 8 September 2018.

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Mrs Joanne Leach

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
11/08/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Suspended