Miss Laura Gee

: Social worker

: SW108739

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 06/11/2017 End: 17:00 09/11/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Caution

Allegation

Allegation (As amended at the commencement of the final hearing):


1. While registered with the HCPC as a Social Worker; and during the course of your employment with Bradford Metropolitan District Council, between 8 February 2016 and 18 March 2016, you used the Council's computer system without permission and/or justification on approximately 19 occasions to access confidential case records relating to:

a)  yourself;
b)  your children;
c)  your ex-partner;
d)  your ex-partner's children;
e)  other associates.

2. Did not declare that you had accepted a police caution on 16 July 2007 for resisting and/or obstructing a police constable when you applied for registration as a Social Worker with the Health and Care Professions Council.

3. The matter described in paragraph 2 was dishonest.

4. The matters set out in paragraphs 1 - 3 constitute misconduct.

5. By reason of your misconduct your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary matters


1. The Registrant, Ms Laura Gee, has attended this hearing at which she has not been represented.

Application to amend the allegation

2. At the start of the hearing the Presenting Officer applied to amend the allegation.  The proposed amendments amounted to a minor re-wording of the factual allegations and involved no change of substance.  The Registrant did not oppose the application.  The Panel being satisfied that the proposed amendments created no risk of prejudice to the Registrant, agreed to the application.  The allegation as it is set out at the head of this document is the amended form.


The Registrant’s response to the particulars to the allegation


3. When invited to respond to the allegation, the Registrant stated that she admitted particular 1, including sub-particulars (a) to (e) inclusive, and also admitted particular 2.  She did not, however, admit that her actions were dishonest as alleged by particular 3.  The Registrant also admitted that her conduct amounted to misconduct, although she denied that her fitness to practise is currently impaired.


The non-disclosure of the caution (particular 2) and the contention that the non-disclosure was dishonest (particular 3)


4. As has already been stated, the Registrant admitted that she did not disclose the fact that she had received a caution when she applied to be registered with the HCPC. Her admission in this respect was corroborated by the copy of her application form included in the exhibits bundle which demonstrated that the Registrant did not complete the box alongside the question, “Have you been convicted of a criminal offence or received a police caution (other than a protect caution or a protected conviction)?”


5. During the HCPC’s case the Legal Assessor invited the Presenting Officer to consider whether the caution the HCPC had been contending should have been disclosed was in fact a “protected caution”.  The Panel allowed time for the Presenting Officer and the HCPC to research the matter and for the Presenting Officer to take instructions on the matter.


6. After appropriate enquiries had been made and instructions taken, the Presenting Officer informed the Panel that the HCPC did not intend to advance the contention that the Registrant had an obligation to disclose the caution when she applied for HCPC registration.  This is because the HCPC accepted that, by the time the application for registration was made, the caution had become a “protected caution” for the purposes of The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2013.  The caution was administered on 16 July 2007. in respect of an offence of resisting or wilfully obstructing a Police Officer in the execution of his duty, contrary to section 89(2) of the Police Act 1996.  The application for HCPC registration was made on 22 November 2015.  At the date of the application the caution was therefore in excess of eight years old, exceeding the period of six years that would be required for a caution to become a protected caution when administered to an adult. The offence was not a “listed offence” preventing the caution from becoming protected notwithstanding the passage of a period in excess of six years.


7. The Panel independently considered whether the HCPC was correct in submitting that the caution was a “protected caution” and came to the conclusion that it was for the reasons already explained.


8. As the allegation of dishonesty advanced by particular 3 depended solely on particular 2 being made out, it necessarily followed that the allegation of dishonesty also fell away.


Background


9. The matters being considered by the Panel occurred early in the Registrant’s first Social Work role and following her registration as a social worker.  She was appointed to the Integrated Assessment Team of Bradford Metropolitan Council (“the local authority”) on 8 February 2016.  In that role her responsibilities involved undertaking assessments of vulnerable families which included reviewing and assessing risk to children.  As she was a newly qualified Social Worker, she was in the process of completing her Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (“ASYE”).


Decision on Facts

10. The HCPC called two witnesses to give evidence before the Panel.  They were:


• Ms KN, a Team Manager for the Children’s Social Care department.  Ms KN had a conversation with the Registrant in the week commencing 22 February 2016 which the HCPC relies upon in support of its case that the Registrant was aware that she should not have been accessing confidential case records of persons that she knew.


• Ms ST, the manager for the local authority’s Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, who undertook an investigation on behalf of the local authority into the Registrant’s actions in accessing confidential case records without a legitimate reason.


11. The Registrant gave evidence. She accepted that she accessed case records of service users without a legitimate reason, however she did so in order to familiarise herself with the electronic case system. The Registrant stated that she didn’t give sufficient thought to the policies on data protection and confidentiality and had thought that she was not in breach of these policies so long as she did not share this information.


12. The Panel first assessed the witnesses who gave evidence before it.


• It found Ms KN to be credible and consistent and to have a good recall of the conversation she had with the Registrant in the week commencing 22 February 2016.  She gave her evidence in a manner that was fair to the Registrant.  The Panel found her evidence to be reliable.


• The Panel also found that Ms SN was fair to the Registrant, particularly in describing the Registrant’s candour when she was interviewed.  Her evidence was considered and consistent, and the Panel found Ms SN to be a credible witness upon whose evidence it could safely rely.


• The Registrant was credible and consistent, being frank about what she had done and in acknowledging her shortcomings.


13. The falling away of particulars 2 and 3 had the consequence that the only facts the Panel was required to decide upon were particulars 1(a) to (e) inclusive, and in relation to those matters it has already been said that they were admitted by the Registrant.  The Panel accepted the Registrant’s admissions with regard to particulars 1(a) to (e), finding her admissions accorded with the documentary evidence and the oral evidence of the witnesses that was based upon results of an audit undertaken on behalf of the local authority.  Accordingly, particulars 1(a) to (e) are proved.

Decision on Grounds

14. The task for the Panel has been to decide if the matters included with particular 1(a) to (e) amount to misconduct.


15. In considering misconduct the Panel first considered what the Registrant should have known about the accessing of confidential information of service users without a legitimate reason. In this regard the Panel made the following findings:


• The Registrant had only very recently started work as a Social Worker when the events being considered by the Panel took place. However, she had undergone a 3 year social work degree, worked as a volunteer and undertook training placements in a social care field. On questioning the Registrant confirmed that she had received training in data protection and confidentiality in all of these settings.


• The Registrant confirmed in evidence before the Panel, she received data protection training provided by the local authority before she accessed the confidential information.


• The Panel accepted the evidence of Ms KN that in the week commencing 22 February 2016 she had a conversation with the Registrant in which Ms KN stated that the Registrant must not look at files concerning people she was familiar with due to the possibility that a conflict of interest may arise, and also stated to her that there would be a clear audit trail available to the local authority’s IT department which would enable it to be discovered who had looked at files.


• Further, the Registrant was provided with a copy of the local authority’s Employee Code of Conduct in which it was stated that employees must not abuse their authority, that employees must make sure that facilities were only used for local authority purposes, and that employees must act in good faith in the course of their duties. Employees were instructed that it was their responsibility to avoid any suggestion of conflict of interest arising from the course of their employment and were required to ensure that their actions did not bring the local authority into disrepute. Employees were also required to familiarise themselves and comply with the relevant legal requirements and the Council’s arrangements for data protection.


16. For these reasons, notwithstanding the fact that the Registrant was at the very beginning of her career as a Social Worker, the Panel is satisfied that she should have been aware of the parameters of confidentiality and data protection.


17. The Panel accepts that the Registrant was new to the electronic recording system and was keen to learn how to navigate around it.  It also accepts that there is no evidence that she acted maliciously or with an ulterior motive.  It further accepts that the Registrant only read material she accessed, and that she did not print, share, or use any of the material. Nevertheless, in accessing some 19 confidential case records without a legitimate reason to do so, over a six week period, the Panel finds that The Registrant’s conduct was serious.


18. There is no evidence that harm resulted from the Registrant’s actions, but the Panel is of the view that what she did created risks. The information she had access to was likely to be highly sensitive data relating to child protection and/or other serious risks, relating to individuals she knew personally. If it had become known that she had access to that information this could have put herself, and/or vulnerable service users at risk of harm.  Another risk created by the accessing of the information was that knowledge obtained by doing so might compromise judgements that the Registrant would be required to make.


19. The Panel is also satisfied that, by her actions, the Registrant brought the reputation of the local authority and the profession of Social Work into disrepute.


By acting as she did, the Panel finds that the Registrant breached the following HCPC’s Standards of conduct, performance and ethics:


• Standard 1.1, “You must treat service users and carers as individuals, respecting their privacy and dignity.”


• Standard 5.1, “You must treat information about service users as confidential.”


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


And of the HCPC’s Standards of Proficiency for Social workers in England:


• Standard 3.1, “understand the need to maintain high standards of personal conduct.”


• Standard 7.1, “be able to understand and explain the limits of confidentiality.”


20. Taking all of these matters into account, the Panel is satisfied that the seriousness of the Registrant’s actions justifies the description of her conduct as misconduct.  It was a serious falling short of the standards she was required to observe, and fully informed and fair minded fellow professionals would regard her behaviour as deplorable.


Decision on Impairment 


21. In making its decision on current impairment of fitness to practise, the Panel paid close attention to the HCPTS Practice Note on the topic and heeded the advice contained in that document that it should consider the matter from both the perspective of the personal component and from that of the public component.


22. The Panel found the Registrant to be a person who had developed significant insight into her actions, and a person who has expressed genuine remorse.  It was apparent from the evidence of Ms ST, who interviewed the Registrant for the purposes of the local authority investigation, that the Registrant volunteered details of records she had viewed of which the local authority had been otherwise unaware, and had been completely frank and extremely apologetic from the outset.  The Registrant has never sought to minimise her actions.  She has also reflected on what she did and has come to a real understanding of why her actions were inappropriate.  The Panel also accepted she has a genuine desire to return to work as a Social Worker, while acknowledging that it will be difficult for her to do so having acted as she did so early in her career.

23. The Panel considered whether the Registrant’s breaches were of a character that are capable of being remedied, and concluded that they were.  As to whether, she has in fact remedied them, the Panel found that the reflection she has undertaken, and her present understanding of the parameters of confidentiality and data protection, are such that the risk of a repetition is low.


24. The Panel next considered Dame Janet Smith’s criteria in the Fifth Shipman report. The Panel does not find that Registrant behaved dishonestly in the past and does not find that she is likely to behave dishonestly in the future.  The Panel does, however, find that when considering the past, the Registrant has put service users at an unwarranted risk of harm, has brought her profession into disrepute and has breached one of the fundamental tenets of her profession.  However, with regard to those areas where the Panel finds that the issues have been engaged in the past, there is no appreciable risk that any of them will be repeated in the future.


25. The fact remains, however, that the Registrant’s conduct in accessing service user’s files without a legitimate reason is a serious breach of professional conduct which had the potential to place the Registrant and service users at risk of harm.  After careful consideration the Panel has concluded that a decision that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is not impaired would fail to declare and uphold proper professional standards, and would not adequately reassure the public that the conduct of the Registrant has been considered seriously by the regulator. Accordingly, confidence in the profession of Social Work would be undermined were no finding of current impairment of fitness to practise made. For these reasons the panel has concluded that a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise is required to address these issues.
26. It follows from these findings that the allegation is well founded with the consequence that the Panel must proceed to consider the issue of sanction.


Decision on Sanction


27. After the Panel announced its decision that the allegation is well founded, both the Presenting Officer and the Registrant made submissions on sanction.


28. The Presenting Officer reminded the Panel of the purpose of a sanction and urged the Panel to have regard to the Indicative Sanctions Policy.  She also identified the aggravating and mitigating factors as they appeared from the Panel’s decision on misconduct and impairment.


29. The Registrant stated that she recognised that her actions were serious, and that, although they did not result in harm, there was potential for them to have done so.  She also recognised that the Panel would be required to impose a sanction to declare proper professional standards and to maintain public confidence.  She did, however, ask the Panel to be lenient with her as it would be difficult for her to rebuild her career as a Social Worker.


30. The Panel received advice form the Legal Assessor and had regard to the Indicative Sanctions policy. The Panel has approached the decision it is required to make on the basis that a sanction is not to be imposed to punish the Registrant.  Rather, a sanction is only to be imposed to the extent that it is required to protect the public, declare proper professional standards and maintain public confidence in the Social Work profession.  As the finding that the allegation is well founded does not of itself require the imposition of a sanction, the first decision to be made is whether the finding that has been made requires any sanction.  If it does, then the available sanctions must be considered in an ascending order of seriousness until one that sufficiently addresses the factors already identified is reached.


31. The Panel began its deliberations by identifying the aggravating and mitigating factors.
32. The Panel considered the facts that the Registrant accessed confidential records without a legitimate reason, on 19 occasions over a six week period, and that doing so gave rise to the risk of harm, to be aggravating factors.


33. The mitigating factors are:


• the Registrant did not access the records with malicious intent;


• no harm actually resulted from the accessing of the records;


• the Registrant has shown significant insight and very genuine remorse;


• the Registrant is in the early stages of her career;

• the Registrant admitted what she had done from the outset, and repeated her admissions, and fully engaged, in both the local authority’s disciplinary process and in the HCPC’s regulatory proceedings against her.


34. In order to address the issues of the declaration of proper professional standards and the maintenance of public confidence, the Panel determined that this is a case in which it is necessary to impose a sanction.  However, in assessing the nature of the sanction required, the Panel considered that the following findings concerning the Registrant are relevant:


• the Registrant has demonstrated significant insight into her actions;


• the Registrant has throughout appreciated the seriousness of what she did, has never sought to minimise the gravity of the matter and has never sought to shift blame to anyone else;


• the Panel is of the clear view that the Registrant has learnt her lesson, with the result that the risk of repetition is low;


35. The Registrant is passionate in her desire to return to work as a Social Worker, is realistic about the challenges that such a return will present given the findings against her, yet has identified steps that she needs to take, such as initially working on a voluntary basis and undergoing training.


36. This is not a case in which mediation would be appropriate as there are no outstanding issues that require resolution. 


37. Accordingly, the Panel next considered whether a caution order would be an appropriate sanction.  The Panel concluded that the imposition of a caution order would be appropriate for the following reasons the imposition of a caution order would, in the judgement of the Panel, be sufficient to declare and uphold proper professional standards and to maintain a proper degree of public confidence in the Social Work profession and in the regulation of that profession.


38. No more restrictive sanction is required.  The Panel tested this view by considering whether a conditions of practice order should be imposed.  A conditions of practice order would be appropriate in a case where the failure is capable of being remedied, but has not yet been remediated. In the present case a conditions of practice order is not required to achieve remediation, and therefore would be a disproportionately severe sanction to impose.


39. As to the length of the caution order, the Panel accepted the guidance that the starting point is three years.  However, in the present case the Panel determined that the appropriate length of the order is 12 months.  In the judgement of the Panel such a period is sufficient to mark those issues that require the imposition of a sanction and is also appropriate given the very early stages of the Registrant’s career as a Social Worker.

Order

Order: That the Registrar is directed to annotate the register entry of Ms Laura Gee with a caution which is to remain on the register for a period of 12 months from the date this order comes into effect. 


Notes

 

The order imposed today will apply from 6 December 2017.

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Miss Laura Gee

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
06/11/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Caution