In the UK, the Architects Act 1997 (AA 1997) provides for the regulation of the architects’ profession, with the Architects Registration Board (ARB) being responsible for its oversight.
The ARB exists to:
- manage the UK register of qualified architects
- determine the qualifications and experience necessary to allow inclusion in the register of architects
- publish a code of standards of conduct and practice;
- Investigate complaints about an architect’s conduct or competence protect the title of “architect”
The potential impact of ARB disciplinary action for an architect cannot be overstated. Not only can the process be costly, stressful, and protracted (sometimes taking over 12 months), the proceedings and subsequent decision taken are made public, leading to the potential for reputational and career damage.
It is, therefore, essential that any architect facing potential disciplinary action from the ARB has a defence strategy that offers the optimal chance of a favourable outcome, protecting their business and reputation. But to do so requires an understanding of the process which you may face.
What is the process for investigating allegations against an architect?
AA 1997 section 14 states that if an architect is alleged to have acted with unacceptable professional conduct, or serious incompetence, the ARB will undertake an initial assessment and draft a report of their findings. If they believe there is a case to answer, the matter is then referred to the ARB’s Professional Conduct Committee (PCC). The PCC is an independent committee whose role it is to consider allegations of unacceptable professional conduct and serious professional incompetence.
At this point, the ARB will serve written notice on the architect, detailing the case being brought, and inviting them to appear in front of the PCC to explain their side. The hearing is typically open to the public and press, but in exceptional circumstances, a private meeting can be requested.
If you are asked to appear before the PCC, it is important to have expert legal representation to outline your defence. A specialist solicitor with experience of defending architects in front of the ARB will understand what they are looking for and will ensure your case is prepared in such a way as to remove any doubt regarding your conduct as effectively as possible.
Under the PCC Rules, you will be given at least 49 days’ notice of the hearing details and a copy of the ARB’s Report detailing the allegations will be provided, to which you must then confirm your intention to attend. While this may seem as though it provides adequate time to prepare, in reality, any documents on which your case relies must be submitted to PCC no later than three weeks before your Hearing. This further underpins the importance of professional legal guidance; failure to submit relevant or admissible documents in good time may jeopardise your case.
During the hearing, the case against you will be outlined, and you will be questioned. The Committee will then listen to your defence case. Either party may call witnesses/seek expert opinion.
The PCC has several powers, including the ability to:
- issue a warning;
- issue a reprimand;
- impose a penalty order (fine) of upto £2,500 per charge with a maximum of 2 charges (upto £5,000);
- formally suspend an architect for up to two years;
- erasure from the Register of Architects.
How to protect your interests in the event of an ARB investigation
Seek legal advice from the outset
All too often, architects find themselves in front of the PCC Committee unprepared and lacking the necessary legal understanding and defence. Time is of the essence when it comes to defending disciplinary matters; the ARB’s rules impose strict timescales for responses, which solicitors in this field will be highly attuned to. Engaging legal expertise early will mean that the steps necessary to compile your case, evidence, witness statements, and expert opinion can be commenced without delay.
In respect of legal costs, you may be covered by professional indemnity insurance for expenses relating to disciplinary action. Our advice is to speak to your insurer (or that of your practice) in any event, as they may agree to fund reasonable legal costs, especially if there is the chance that doing so may avert larger claims in the future.
Building your defence
When it comes to building your case, it is important to note that the PCC will be seeking to determine whether a) on the balance of probabilities, did you behave in the way alleged (whereby the burden of proof is on the ARB); and if so, b) does this behaviour amount to unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence?
In addition to these questions, it will be important to establish whether the accusations are a ‘serious’ lapse and to find any mitigating factors which may reasonably explain the conduct. If you are aware of any circumstances which may have led to your actions (or failure to act), these may play an important role in your defence.
It will also be essential to draw to the PCC’s attention your prior positive record, submissions by other parties vouching for your character and professional conduct, and evidence of measures to prevent any further recurrence.
It is essential that you seek advice from a solicitor with experience in this area. Jonathan Goodwin has prosecuted on behalf of the ARB for nearly 20 years. He is now available to represent you.
Bringing all of the elements together to build a strong case, to the extent necessary to satisfactorily allay the concerns of the PCC, takes time and expertise. Legal professionals with experience of guiding architects through this process with the ARB understand the benchmarks required to achieve a positive outcome. And just as important, the knowledge that the matter is being dealt with by legal professionals with a strong history of successfully defending architects in disciplinary hearings means the weight is removed from their shoulders, allowing them to focus on their work and meeting the needs of clients.
Jonathan Goodwin Solicitor Advocate has nearly 20 years’ experience in preparing and prosecuting cases on behalf of the ARB to the PCC. He is now available to defend you. If you have any questions regarding this article, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry and I will soon be in touch.