Eric Paul Forster

: Social worker

: SW25039

Interim Order: Imposed on 25 Jul 2016

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 02/01/2018 End: 17:00 02/01/2018

: Health and Care Professions Council, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

(as amended at Substantive Hearing):


On 21 June 2017 at Durham Crown Court you were convicted of:


1. Sexual assault of a female child under 13 years.
2. Making indecent photograph of children.
3. Sexual assault of female child under 13 years.
4. Sexual assault of female child under 13 years.
5. Sexual assault of female child under 13 years.
6. Making indecent photograph of children.
7. Possessing prohibited images of children.
8. By reason of your convictions as set out in paragraphs 1-7 your fitness to practise as a Social Worker is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters


Proof of Service
1. A written notice of hearing dated 20 October 2017 was sent, on that date, by first class post to the Registrant at his registered address. In those circumstances, good service of the Notice of Hearing was established: rr. 3 and 6, Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 as amended (‘the Rules’).


Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant
2. Mr Paterson applied to proceed in the absence of the Registrant. He informed the Panel that the Registrant had not engaged at all with these proceedings and drew attention to earlier correspondence of 21 September 2017 that had been sent to his registered address, which informed him of the allegation to which this case relates.

3. The Panel accepted the advice given by the Legal Assessor, who referred to r. 11 of the Rules, which states –
Where the registrant is neither present nor represented at a hearing, the Committee may nevertheless proceed with the hearing if it is satisfied that all reasonable steps have been taken to serve the notice of the hearing under rule 6(1) on the registrant.

4. The Legal Assessor also referred to the principles identified in the decision of the Court of Appeal in GMC v Adeogba [2016] EWCA Civ. 162, and in paragraph 19 of the judgment in Davies v HCPC [2016] EWHC 1593 (Admin), in which Wyn Williams J. drew together various of those principles as follows, -
First, the principles which apply to proceedings in the absence of a defendant in a criminal trial are a useful starting point. However, it should be borne in mind that there are important differences between a criminal trial and fitness to practise proceedings. The decision of a panel must be guided by the main statutory objective of the regulator; the protection, promotion and maintenance of health and safety of the public. Second, fair economical, expeditious and efficient disposal of allegations made against a registrant is of very real importance. Third, fairness includes fairness to the practitioner and also fairness to the regulator. Importantly, unlike a criminal court, a panel does not have the power to compel the attendance of the registrant. Fourth, the regulator represents the public interest. Accordingly it would run entirely counter to the protection, promotion and maintenance of the health and safety of the public if a practitioner could effectively frustrate the process and challenge a refusal to adjourn when that practitioner had deliberately failed to engage in the process. Fifth, there is a burden on registrants to engage with the regulator in relation to the investigation and resolution of allegations against them. Sixth, in many regulatory cases the rules make it mandatory for a registrant to provide a current registered address. Failure to comply with this mandatory obligation may give rise to disciplinary sanctions. In such circumstances, it is for the registrant to ensure that notices sent by the regulator to that address come to his attention.


5. The Registrant has been serving a prison sentence at H.M. Prison, Holme House. All reasonable efforts have been made to serve the notice of hearing on the Registrant at his registered address in accordance with r. 6(1), being an address elsewhere in England.

6. The Panel concluded that an adjournment would serve no useful purpose and would not result in the Registrant’s participation in a later hearing. This being a case concerned with a criminal conviction, it is in the public interest to proceed with the hearing. In those circumstances, the Panel decided that it would be appropriate to proceed in the absence of the Registrant.


Amendment to the Allegation
7. The Legal Assessor drew attention to the wording of paragraph 7 of the Allegation (‘possess prohibited images of children’) and advised that it would be more suitably worded by amendment to ‘possessing prohibited images of children’. Mr Paterson took no objection to this proposed amendment and there was no injustice to the Registrant if it were made. The Panel decided that it should be made in order to give clarity to paragraph 7 of the Allegation. 


Decision on Facts


8. The HCPC bears the burden of establishing its factual case to the standard of the balance of probabilities. A certified copy of the certificate of conviction is admissible evidence of a criminal conviction: r. 10(1)(d) of the Rules.


9. A copy of the certificate of conviction was before the Panel, establishing the matters set out in paragraphs 1-7 and the stem of the Allegation.


Decision on Grounds


10. The Panel was required to decide whether the facts proved related to a conviction in the United Kingdom for a criminal offence: Art. 22(1)(a)(iii), Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, as amended. The conviction was at the Durham Crown Court, and therefore in the United Kingdom. The conviction related to criminal offences of sexual assault of a child under 13 contrary to s. 7 Sexual Offences Act 2003, making indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of a child and possession of prohibited images of children.  Therefore, the statutory ground of conviction has been established.    


Decision on Impairment


11. Mr Paterson submitted that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was currently impaired. He submitted that there had been no guilty plea in relation to the four counts of sexual assault and that the Registrant had pleaded guilty to the remaining charges following the evidence of the computer expert called by the prosecution. Mr Paterson submitted that the Registrant presented a risk to the public and that a finding of impairment was required in order to maintain public confidence in the profession.


12. The Panel directed itself in accordance with the advice given by the Legal Assessor on the issue of impairment. The purpose of fitness to practise proceedings arising from a criminal conviction is not to punish a registrant twice. Their purpose is to protect the public who may come to the Registrant as service users and to maintain the high standards and good reputation of the profession. The Panel should consider whether the fact that the offences have been committed by a Social Worker brings the profession into disrepute or undermines public confidence in the profession; and if so, why. In deciding these matters, regard should be had to the seriousness of the conviction in the context of registered practice.


13. The nature, circumstances and gravity of the offence are all relevant and the issue of impairment is not limited to the conviction but may include the factual context as set out in the documents before the Panel. The Legal Assessor also referred to the principles set out in CHRE v NMC & Grant [2011] EWHC 927 (Admin) at [64] – [76], Cheatle v GMC [2009] EWHC 645 (Admin) at [21 – 22], to the guidance given in the HCPTS’ Practice Notes, ‘Conviction and Caution Allegations’ and ‘Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired’, and to the Overarching Objective contained in Art. 3(4) and 3(4A) and paragraph 18(10A) of Schedule 1, Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, as amended.

14. The circumstances in which the Registrant committed the offences were set out in the Sentencing Remarks of the trial judge, H.H. Judge Prince. The Registrant had been the Social Worker of the mother of Child A during the 1990’s and maintained a relationship with the family after he had ceased to be involved as the Social Worker of Child A’s mother. He was looked upon by the family ‘as an uncle figure.’ At the time of the offences against Child A, the child was living with her mother and step-father. Child A spent time at her grandmother’s house and the Registrant visited that house and took Child A for walks with his dog. It was during these walks that the sexual assaults took place, when she was six and seven years of age. The offences relating to the images, though not concerned with uploading or sharing, concerned images that depicted very serious sexual abuse of children as young as nine.    


15. The offences of which the Registrant was convicted were very grave indeed. The circumstances in which the offences against Child A were committed showed an appalling breach of the trust placed in the Registrant by the child’s mother and by Child A herself. The Registrant only had the opportunity to commit those offences as a result of his original position as the Social Worker of Child A’s mother. Further, as a Social Worker, he must have been aware of the adverse long-term consequences to a child of sexual abuse.


16. In those circumstances, the fact and circumstances of the Registrant’s conviction for the offences are so egregious (see Cheatle v GMC at [22]) that members of the public would consider it perverse if a finding of impaired fitness to practise were not made in the circumstances.


17. The purpose of fitness to practise proceedings is to protect the public against the acts and omissions of those who are not fit to practise. The conduct underlying these offences is inherently difficult to remediate. In any case, there was no evidence of any insight on the part of the Registrant and the sentencing remarks of the judge indicated a complete absence of remorse. In all the circumstances, there is a high risk of repetition of the acts that gave rise to the criminal convictions.


18. In the circumstances, the Panel has concluded that a finding of impaired fitness to practise is required in order to maintain public confidence in the profession and, in view of the risk of repetition, to protect the public.


Decision on Sanction


19. Mr Paterson drew the Panel’s attention to the purpose of sanctions and to the particular considerations of public protection and the wider public interest, together with the requirement that a Panel applies the principle of proportionality in making its decision, giving due weight to the public interests at stake and the Registrant’s own interests. He referred to passages from the HCPTS’ Indicative Sanctions Policy (ISP), 22 March 2017, and addressed each of the available sanctions.


20. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor, who also referred to the principles from the ISP and drew attention to the statutory overarching objective to which the Panel was required to have regard, namely the protection, promotion and maintenance of the health, safety and well‐being of the public; and the promotion and maintenance of public confidence in the profession and proper professional standards and conduct for members of the profession: Article 3(4),(4A) and paragraph 18(10A) of Schedule 1 of, the 2001 Order.


21. The primary function of any sanction is to address public safety from the perspective of the risk which the Registrant concerned may pose to those who use or need his or her services. However, in reaching its decision, the Panel must also give appropriate weight to the wider public interest, which also includes the deterrent effect to other registrants, the reputation of the profession and public confidence in the regulatory process.


22. The Panel has taken into account the following aggravating factors:
• The gravity of the offences (sexual assault of a child and making and possessing indecent images of children);
• The sexual assaults took place over a long period of time and numbered four in all;
• The sexual assaults against Child A were the result of an abuse of the trust placed in the Registrant as a family friend;
• The Registrant only had knowledge of Child A due to his professional role with her mother, dating from the 1990s;
• The Registrant maintained his pleas of ‘not guilty’ to the charges of sexual assault and as a result made Child A undergo the trial process;
• The indecent images included some in the highest category of seriousness;
• The Registrant only pleaded guilty in relation to the charges concerned with indecent images in the light of evidence given for the prosecution by a computer expert; 
• The Registrant has not engaged with the HCPC, his regulator, in respect of this fitness to practise hearing;
• He has shown no insight into, or remorse for, the conduct underlying the offences; 
• As a Social Worker, the Registrant was aware of the harm that his actions were likely to have on Child A. In fact, those actions had a most adverse effect on the child, as referred to by the judge in the Sentencing Remarks in view of the victim impact statement made by the child’s mother.


23. The Panel did take into account the fact that the Registrant had no previous adverse fitness to practise record with his social work regulator and that, despite the criticism about his not guilty plea referred to above, he did enter a plea of guilty in relation to the indecent images, albeit at that late stage.


24. The Panel considered the available options in ascending order. This was plainly not a ‘no action’ case in view of the gravity and nature of the offences. The options of mediation, a caution or conditions of practice would provide no protection to the public in view of the continuing risk that the Registrant would present to service users, nor would any of those outcomes reflect the demands of the wider public interest. Members of the public would be very concerned if the Registrant were to be left at liberty to practise, even with restrictions placed on his registration.


25. A period of suspension would secure the temporary removal of the Registrant from registered practice. However, an order of suspension would not meet the demands of the wider public interest in view of the utmost seriousness of the offences, the circumstances in which they were committed, and the aggravating factors set out above.


26. The Panel has concluded that suspension is not a sufficient response to the impairment in the circumstances. An essential part of the role of a Social Worker is to safeguard vulnerable individuals from abuse. The Registrant has, for the reasons set out in this Decision, done the very opposite, and has engaged in activities involving the sexual abuse of children. Therefore, an order of suspension would neither promote nor maintain confidence in the social work profession or its regulation.


27. Accordingly, the Panel has concluded that the only proportionate order in this case is that of striking off and that such an order is necessary in the circumstances.             

Order

ORDER: The Registrar is directed to strike the name of Mr Eric Paul Forster from the Register.

Notes


Hearing history

History of Hearings for Eric Paul Forster

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
02/01/2018 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off
20/12/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
04/10/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
11/07/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
18/04/2017 Investigating committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
19/01/2017 Investigating committee Interim Order Review Interim Suspension
25/07/2016 Investigating committee Interim Order Application Interim Suspension