Craig v Farriers Registration Council [2017] EWHC 707 (Admin)

Charles Craig (the Appellant) brought an appeal against the decision of the Disciplinary Committee (the Committee) of the Farriers Registration Council (the Council), which had found him guilty of serious misconduct and directed that his name be removed from the Register of Farriers (the Register).

Farriers are those engaged in the shoeing of horses. The Appellant was an experienced Farrier; he was an Approved Training Farrier (ATF), one of four elected members of the Council, a member of the Committee and he held a Royal Warrant for his services.

Regulation of Farriers

The Council is the statutory body responsible for maintaining the Register and regulating those who are on the register. One of the routes available to become a fully registered Farrier is to undertake an apprenticeship qualification. All apprentices are employed by ATFs who provide on-the-job training and apprentices are also required to attend College for theoretical training and assessment. Originally, the National Farrier Training Agency was the body responsible for managing apprenticeships; however, following a critical OFSTED report in 2013, the Council took over the management of ATF’s.

Section 15 of the Farriers (Registration) Act 1975 (the Act) makes provision for a direction by a Committee to remove a registrant from the Register or direct that their registration be suspended. There is a discrepancy between this Act and the Farriers Registration Council Disciplinary Committee (Procedure) Rules 1976, which provide not only for removal from the Register and suspension but also to make no direction or postpone judgment. Further, Guidance Notes for the Committee identify an option to issue reprimands.

Should a Committee suspend or remove an ATF from the Register their status as an ATF is also revoked. If a Farrier is found guilty of serious misconduct but not suspended or removed, an internal review process will be undertaken which may lead to either removal of ATF status, suspension or continuation, with or without conditions. Even where a finding of serious misconduct is not made a Committee still has discretion to refer a Farrier to the Registrar for an ATF status review, if it considers the Farrier’s status as an ATF has been called into question.

Background

The allegations brought against the Appellant related to concerns of misconduct towards one of the Appellant's apprentices between July 2012 and May 2013. There were 9 main charges, some of which contained further sub-charges. The Committee found three of the main charges proven, two partially proven and four not proven. With the exception of one of the proven charges, the Committee found that all of the charges proven amounted to serious professional misconduct. The Committee concluded that given the seriousness of the matter and having regard to his previous disciplinary history from 2003, the Appellant’s name should be removed from the Register.

The Appeal

The Appellant raised five grounds of appeal, as set out below:

Ground 1: The Committee failed to take into account their rejection of charges in holding that the complainant was a convincing and reliable witness.

Justice Morris indicated that unless there is an overall finding that the evidence of a witness cannot be relied upon, it is not wrong in principle to accept the evidence of a witness on one charge but not on another. The Committee both heard from and saw the witnesses, the advantage of which is considerable. Just because they found some of the charges not proven is not a reason to conclude that the specific findings on the charges proven were wrong. He did however, consider that the Committee's conclusion in respect of one charge was flawed as they had failed to take into account all of the available evidence, in particular the response from the complainant when the Appellant’s response was put to him. Save in respect of this one charge, the first ground of appeal was rejected.

Ground 2: The Committee erred in treating findings of fact made against the Appellant by another Committee in January 2003 as conclusive evidence of the facts considered at that hearing.

In 2003 the Appellant was found guilty of serious professional misconduct. The allegations in respect of this earlier disciplinary matter related to abusive and bullying behaviour towards four apprentices. All but one charge was contested. The Committee had taken into consideration these previous findings when making their determination about the current matter, but the Appellant contested that the findings from the earlier proceedings should be excluded from the Committee’s considerations. He had been unable to appeal the findings as this right only arises where the registrant is suspended or removed from the register; in the 2003 proceedings judgment was postponed and when reconvened a decision to take no further action was made.

Justice Morris considered that the 2003 findings were a final decision and were conclusive evidence of the underlying facts that were found proven. Justice Morris found that the Committee directed itself correctly as to the relevance of the previous findings and this ground of the appeal was therefore rejected.

Ground 3: The Committee held that the Appellant was an unreliable and evasive witness because he could not recall earlier conversations in the 1990s or in 2013, which defied common sense.

The Council submitted that this ground did not accurately reflect the Committee’s reasoning. Justice Morris considered the Appellant’s responses when giving evidence and found that the Committee was entitled to reach the findings it did in relation to the Appellant's credibility, having heard from him and having explained the reasons for its findings. This ground was therefore rejected.

Ground 4: The Committee gave no or insufficient reasons for rejecting the evidence of five third-party witnesses called on behalf of the Appellant.

The Committee had noted that the five witnesses were relatively peripheral and did not give direct evidence in relation to the allegations in question. Justice Morris found that the approach adopted by the Committee in assessing the available evidence was cogent and one which they were entitled to take. This ground was therefore rejected.

Ground 5: The sanction imposed was wholly disproportionate.

The Appellant submitted that the effect of the order made by the Committee was to prevent him from working again, which was disproportionate and unnecessary. He submitted there was no public interest in preventing him from working as a Farrier and it was within the powers of the Committee to require that he did not take apprentices in the future. He could either have been made subject to conditions or he could have entered into a contract with the Council which required him to give up his ATF registration, as he was willing to relinquish this status. The Council could and should have considered recommending to the Registrar removal as an ATF.

The Council submitted that there is no power for a Committee to impose any restriction upon a Farrier's status as an ATF as there is no power to impose conditions, nor any power to direct that a contract be entered into as proposed by the Appellant. The Council also submitted that the roles of the Council and Committee are entirely separate, and the Appellant's case fails to take into account the public interest considerations and the extent of his conduct, including aggravating factors such as the complainant being a teenager with a learning disability. Finally, it was noted that the Appellant did not attend the hearing on sanction.

Justice Morris accepted that the Committee has no express power to direct the removal of a Farrier from the list of approved ATF's, nor impose conditions, nor direct that a contract be entered into as proposed. However, Justice Morris found that it was open to the Committee to consider whether removal as an ATF, without removal from the Register, was an appropriate sanction. The Committee could have made no direction, which under the ATF policy would have led to a review by the Registrar of the Appellant's status as an ATF. The submission that the Committee has “no jurisdiction” or role in respect of ATF status, was not accepted. Justice Morris stated that ‘the Disciplinary Committee had the power, following a finding of misconduct, to take steps and/or make recommendations which would or might result in loss of ATF status but not removal from the register’.

Justice Morris went on to consider the issue of public interest, and whilst accepting that this was important, noted that the primary objective of the Act was to protect horses from harm.

Justice Morris was critical of the Committee’s finding when considering the 2003 concerns that there had been no lasting improvement as it appeared that during the intervening period the Appellant had been a successful ATF.

Justice Morris concluded that:

'The Appellant is a competent and experienced farrier and the sanction imposed deprives him of his ability to earn his living, at least in so far as it is earned from that profession. To impose such a sanction is a draconian step. The Disciplinary Committee failed to consider the possibility that a more appropriate and proportionate outcome in this case would be removal as an ATF, without removal from the register.'

Justice Morris held that the decision was flawed and unjust. Ground 5 of the appeal therefore succeeded and an order was made setting aside the direction made removing the Appellant's name from the register.

Commentary

This case serves as an important reminder to disciplinary panels to consider the full range of sanctions available to them, and the principle of proportionality. In short, disciplinary panels should impose the least restrictive sanction which serves to meet the misconduct found proven in the case, as to impose a sanction which is more draconian may be considered unnecessary and oppressive by the Courts.