A helpful reminder to those imposing sanctions

The English High Court recently delivered judgment in respect an appeal by the Professional Standards Authority (the “Authority”) against a decision of the Conduct and Competence Committee (the “Committee”) of the Health and Care Professionals Council (the “Council”) in respect of Mr Francis Ajeneye. In this case, the Court found that given the findings made against Mr Ajeneye, the imposition by the Committee of a caution, even for the maximum period of five years, was unduly lenient.

Background

Mr Ajeneye was a Senior Biomedical Scientist at Homerton University Hospital. Mr Ajeneye provided false references to two acquaintances, Ms Grace Oni and Ms Titlayo Oyedele, both of whom were seeking to be employed as Biomedical Scientists.

In relation to Ms Oni, Mr Ajeneye stated among other things, that he had worked with her previously as a BMS1 Blood Science’s Supervisor. However, Ms Oni had never worked with Mr Ajeneye and instead had been employed as a cleaner at the University Hospital’s NHS Foundation Trust during the period covered by the reference. Ms Oyedele had never worked with or for Mr Ajeneye and had not even met him until after the period covered in the reference.

Ms Oni and Ms Oyedele were subsequently hired as Biomedical Scientists. However, during the course of their employment, serious issues regarding their competence came to light which caused serious concerns about their employment and an investigation was commenced in relation to their applications for the positions of Biomedical Scientist and the references supplied to support them. In one instance Ms Oyedele’s lack of competence, caused her to give non-matched blood to a patient, which caused harm, albeit not permanent, to that patient.

When the matter came before the Committee, Mr Ajeneye accepted that while the references were inaccurate he denied any dishonesty and maintained that the employment agency had written the reference and he simply failed to check the contents before signing it.

The Committee found that the allegations of providing false, in the sense of inaccurate references proven. The Committee found this amounted to serious breaches of the Council’s published “Standards of conduct, performance and ethics” and accordingly made findings of misconduct and dishonesty in respect of Mr Ajeneye.

The Committee in considering sanction had to determine whether a caution would be a sufficient and appropriate sanction in these circumstances. The Committee found that while the misconduct involved dishonesty, it was in respect of two references and Mr Ajeneye had gained no personal benefit from providing them.

The Committee also took into consideration the fact that Mr Ajeneye had an otherwise unblemished record and accepted that he regretted his misconduct and would not provide inaccurate references in the future. Accordingly, the Committee found that a caution would be sufficient to protect the public and the public interest. However, in order to send a message to the public that inaccurate references should not be provided, while also allowing Mr Ajeneye to continue to practice as a Biomedical Scientist, the Committee imposed a caution that would last for the maximum period of five years to emphasise the seriousness of the misconduct in this case.

The argument of the Authority in bringing the appeal against sanction was inter alia that the sanction imposed in this incident was unduly lenient and failed to reflect the seriousness of the misconduct.

Findings of the Court

The Court found that Mr Ajeneye was an experienced blood scientist who was aware of the skill required for him to carry out this role. Mr Ajeneye provided dishonest references on two separate occasions, and when challenged he attempted to avoid responsibility by saying that the employment agency had completed the references and he signed them without understanding their purpose.

This was not considered a lapse in professional standards. Rather it was two acts of dishonesty in combination with a dishonest attempt to place blame elsewhere in the course of the hearing. The damage caused to the public interest being evident in the harm caused to one patient and the obvious risk to which others were exposed. Damage to public confidence was also caused by the fact that two wholly incompetent and dishonest individuals were employed as health professionals with the assistance and connivance of Mr Ajeneye.

The parties were invited to make submissions to the Court to determine the best course in achieving the proper sanction in this case.

While only of persuasive authority, this decision serves as a helpful reminder that where sanctions are imposed at the conclusion of disciplinary proceedings, disciplinary committees, Councils or Boards must take into consideration the rights of registrants. They must, however, also give adequate weight to any proven allegations in order to ensure that the sanction imposed will maintain public confidence in the profession and the system of regulation.

Click here for a link to the decision.