Court approves decision of General Optical Council to proceed in absence and strike off

The appellant (P) appealed against the decision of a fitness to practise panel of the General Optical Council (GOC) that his fitness to practise was impaired by virtue of convictions for obtaining a money transfer by deception and by virtue of misconduct, and against his removal from the register. P had pleaded guilty to 9 counts of obtaining a money transfer by deception; he had falsely represented that a medical practitioner (Y) had signed the forms needed to secure payment for eye tests on the National Health Service. It was found that the amount obtained as a result of the deception was between £50,000 and £65,000.

In addition to those convictions, it was further alleged that P had tested patients' sight while not registered to do so; that he had forged Y's signature; that he had falsely claimed for sight test examinations and prescriptions; and that he had been dishonest.

At the substantive hearing, P did not attend, having provided a GP’s note stating that he was depressed.  An adjournment was sought on his behalf by his representative, who had attended.  The panel refused the application on the basis that the note lacked detail.

It was P’s position that he was not in fact guilty of the offences to which he had pleaded guilty in the criminal proceedings. In putting forward that defence, he relied on evidence from Y (the individual whose signature he was alleged to have forged). Y’s registration had in fact been suspended by an interim order and his registration had ceased.

The panel concluded that P's fitness to practise was impaired by reason of his convictions for fraud and by reason of the other misconduct.

It was submitted on behalf of P that; the panel were wrong not to have adjourned the hearing; the panel should have concluded that there was no fraud on the basis of evidence from Y; the panel had misstated the extent of the fraud identified in the criminal proceedings; and the panel was wrong to have removed his name from the register.

The appeal was dismissed. The Court found that the panel had made their decision according to the correct legal principles in considering whether to adjourn. There was no concrete medical diagnosis, nor any suggestion given as to when the registrant would be able to appear. There was also nothing in the GP’s note to indicate that P was, in fact unfit to attend. The panel had carried out an appropriate balancing exercise between fairness to the registrant as against fairness to other parties and the public interest.  There could be no criticism of the panel in their taking into account the fact that Y’s registration had been suspended. In any event, even at its highest, Y’s evidence did not undermine P’s convictions. Further, there was no error in the panel's consideration of the extent of the fraud.

The panel found that in professional disciplinary matters the reputation of the profession was a factor that might significantly inform the consideration of the appropriate sanction. Given the extent and nature of the fraud in the present case, removal from the register was almost inevitable.

This is yet another case reiterating the importance of honesty and integrity for professionals and serious consequences when these principles are breached.