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Fitness to Practice Investigation

Stages of Fitness to Practice


Investigation
Hearing
Appeal

This article is for Fitness to Practice Investigations and is intended as a helpful guide that should be read alongside the Fitness to Practice Policy, for related processes see Disciplinary, Fitness to Practice Hearing, Fitness to Practice Appeal, Academic Misconduct, Suspension or Mediation

Overview

Fitness to practice procedures relates to students on select courses and their ability to be able to conduct themselves in a professional manner and to the standards expected of their professional body. 

Students whose professions are regulated by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), National Youth Agency (NYA) or other programmes governed by a professional regulatory or statutory code and those students on teacher education programmes, are subject to fitness to practice procedures and policies. 

The University has 2 methods by which they can deal with any suspected issues including;

  • Fitness to Practice Investigation- in the case of serious issues
    • Initial actions may be taken to safeguard and/or investigate before determining if a full investigation is needed
    • Full Investigation dealt with by a Investigating Officer 
  • Fitness to Practice Hearing – in cases of the most serious nature
    • with a Fitness to Practice Panel

Police investigations and Court Action
Please note, if criminal proceedings have been taken against you, or where an alleged conduct would constitute a criminal offense, the university have the right to defer action pending any police investigation or court action. The University reserves the right to report any matters to the police if deemed necessary. The University will take into consideration the views of any victim before doing so, but will not be bound by these views.

Suspensions
As a precaution, depending on the nature of the allegations, you may be suspended during the investigation. You should adhere to any guidance given regarding suspensions during this time. 

Don’t panic if you are informed an investigation is taking place.
It is important to remember that until the conclusion of the process, the university is looking into an allegation or a concern and they should ensure they take on board the points you raise in response before reaching a conclusion. Wherever an allegation or concern has been raised, it is right that it is looked into appropriately and this can lead to instances where the allegation or concern is dismissed and/or not found. 

As a precaution, depending on the nature of the allegations, you may be suspended during the investigation. You should adhere to any guidance given regarding suspensions during this time. 

If you are concerned that a malicious allegation has been raised against you and/or if feel you are dealing with harassment, then you should speak with an advisor and highlight those concerns with the Disciplinary Officer.

You will be given information beforehand.
At an appropriate point, usually after information has been collated, you will be contacted in writing and be informed of any concerns including any allegations and evidence being presented against you. All allegations should be made clearly, with dates and specific detail of the issue. You may not have the clearest picture until you are provided with the evidence- at any stage you can speak with an advisor.

Issues affecting Fitness to Practice
The following examples include instances where students have not conducted themselves, or would be unable to conduct themselves as required in their professional practice;

  • Conduct contrary to professional regulatory body guidance
  • Conduct contrary to the work based placement code of conduct.
  • Inappropriate behaviour for example abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Breaches of professional responsibility e.g. breach of confidentiality
  • Breaches of the University of Sunderland Code of Conduct
  • Breaches of University Regulations/Academic Misconduct [particularly where this relates to attempts to deceive or gain unfair advantage]
  • Failure to declare a Criminal Conviction/ caution
  • An enhanced DBS certificate with undeclared information
  • A recently acquired conviction / caution or an on-going or pending criminal investigation
  • Ill health where this may be relevant to the profession 
    • including where this prevents students from being able to meet competences they would need in order to work in the profession

Normally the Dean, or a staff member acting on their behalf, will initially determine if there is any immediate action that needs to be taken with particular consideration of considering risks to staff, students, clients or visitors. 

On placement, University staff may suspend a student immediately from attending placement in instances/concerns regarding he safety of others or themselves, acts of violence or aggression by the student, issues of confidentiality, or theft or damage to property whilst on placement.

Any action will be formally recorded in your file (with a rationale for the decision) and written notification of any recommendation sent to you.

Further action may be taken after initial actions take, for instance the outcome of an Occupational Health Referral can eventually lead to a Fitness to Practice Hearing
Actions that may be taken include;

  • Suspension of attendance at placement
  • Precautionary Suspension from the University until the issues are investigated
  • Occupational Health Referral 
  • Referring you to appropriate support services 
  • Appointment of an Investigating Officer with no prior involvement in the case
    • The Investigating Officer will usually interview you about the concerns
  • Referring the matter to a Fitness to Practice Hearing
  • Referring the matter for consideration under the University Disciplinary Regulations

Review evidence presented against you 
Prior to meeting with the Investigating Officer, with information so that the allegations are clear, with dates and specific detail of the issue, so that all concerned, can understand precisely what is alleged. You should review this information, and prepare responses and/or evidence to points raised against you. 

Whilst there is no guidance on the handling of witness statements within fitness to practice regulations, in order to make allegations clear we would usually expect witness statements made in connection with the investigation are shared with you, including the identity of those making those statements. 

Remember that the purpose of the meeting is to investigate and so the information and evidence you have so far received may not be full picture; you will need to present your points and evidence. 

You should try to consider the evidence as raised in good faith unless you have strong reason to suspect it has been raised maliciously against you. This means assuming that it is more likely the allegations or concerns come from a well-meaning or genuine place, for example;

  • You may have been misheard or misunderstood by someone else who was genuinely concerned
  • You may not have realised how a comment or action was taken by another
  • Others might see an issue with your actions/behaviour that you do not recognise as an issue
  • You may have been misidentified by those who raised concerns

Drafting your response 
Your response can be provided in writing to the Investigating Officer, or may be your own notes for use in the meeting. We recommend you write down your responses and thoughts prior to a meeting so you can be confident that you have raised everything you wish to do so before the conclusion of the investigation. 

You should try to anticipate possible questions the Investigating Officer might have when considering your response. An advisor from Sunderland Students’ Union is well placed to help you consider possible questions and your response in advance of the meeting. They can discuss with you your response and the evidence you are planning to provide, as well as how you might best frame your response so it is as strong as possible.

The Advisor can also help you review the evidence raised against you and help you better understand the nature of the allegations if any of it is unclear.

Mitigation 
If you believe circumstances which are exceptional, outside your control, and that have prevented you conducting yourself in an appropriate manner, then you should consider raising this in your response or at the meeting with the Investigating officer. 

However you should note that highlighting such circumstances does not dissolve you of responsibility if you have not conducted yourself in an appropriate manner, rather this is an opportunity for you and the university to consider if there any support you might need. 

Disclosure or concerns of mental health issues, or other health issues as mitigation may raise concerns about fitness to practise in and of itself. It is important that students have the self-awareness to identify when their fitness to practise is compromised by ill health and take action accordingly; in professional practice we would normally expect staff to take action such as undergoing treatment, putting strategies in place, keeping line managers informed and/or taking leave from practise whether short or long term. 

University disciplinary regulations describes Substance misuse, including alcohol and drugs, as something that is explicitly not mitigation and can, in some circumstances, be considered an aggravating factor. We would typically expect Fitness to Practice processes to take a similar view.

Reasonable adjustments 
Inform the Investigating officer in advance of the meeting if you have any reasonable adjustments due to disability or ill health. 

You may have prepared very well for the meeting in advance but attending formal meetings such as this can be daunting. Here are some top tips for attending formal meetings.

Attend with someone
You have the right to be accompanied to the meeting with the Investigating officer. This could be someone from a professional body or union or by another member of the University community. 

Although we recommend you attend with an advisor, you can choose to bring a legal representative instead however you must inform the University of this, and the University may then choose to have its own legal representation. Legal representatives can be costly so make sure you get one who understands the higher education section, the professional section you are training in and professional body requirements. 

You are expected to respond to the allegations; anyone attending with you are there to support you and not to act on your behalf. 

Responding to questions
Take your time in answering questions put to you; if you need to take a deep breath or a sip of water. It is better you are able to calmly and cohesively answer rather than rushing to respond. 

At any point, if attending with a students’ union advisor, you can consult with them about your response or to ask for clarity. 

Try not to act in an aggressive or confrontational way if you are facing challenging questions. Sometimes difficult questions are necessary to get to the bottom of an allegation, and as these questions are directed at you it can at times feel personal (even if it is not). However, if attending with a students’ union advisor, they will highlight with you if they believe the Investigating officer if acting outside of regulations or in a manner which is unacceptable. 

Remain at all times, polite and professional- this does not stop you being firm or resolved in your responses. 

Timescales
There is no prescribed time in which you will receive a response from Investigating Officer under the fitness to practise regulations. If you have any concerns about the length of time waiting for an outcome from the meeting with the investigating officer you should speak with a students’ union advisor

Possible Outcomes
If an allegation is upheld, the Investigation Officer can take a number of actions, whilst there is no definitive list, we would expect to see such actions as;

  1. To dismiss the case;
  2. To require you apologise, either verbally or in writing;
  3. To offer you advice as to future behaviour;
  4. Occupational Health Referral;
  5. Referring you to appropriate support services;
  6. Referring the matter to the Fitness to Practice Hearing;
  7. Referring the matter for consideration under the University Disciplinary Regulations

Disclosure of outcomes 
The University may be required to report issues of fitness to practice to the relevant professional body and if applicable to the student’s employer and the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

The University works in partnership with employers in upholding professional standards and will liaise with them in the first instance regarding the reporting of Fitness to Practise findings to the relevant professional body. However, the University reserves the right to make referrals directly if this is deemed appropriate.

The University reserves the right to refer to disciplinary findings when requested to provide a reference, but would only do so in cases which resulted in expulsion or punitive suspension, or exceptionally where failure to include mention in a reference would create a material risk in the context of the employment (for example, if it involved working with children). We therefore expect the University to take a similar view with Fitness to Practice cases. 
 

If you remain dissatisfied with the outcome or handling of the Investigation you may wish to raise a formal complaint within 3 months of the investigation; although we recommend acting sooner.

However if the outcome was that the matter be referred to a Fitness to Practice Hearing then it is worth noting that the Hearing has its own appeal process. 

If you are concerned that a malicious allegation has been raised against you and/or if feel you are dealing with harassment, then you should speak with an advisor and highlight those concerns with the Investigating Officer as early as possible and ideally not at the end of the process unless new evidence has come to light.

Page last reviewed: 01/03/2019
Next review due: 31/08/2020