In recent times in the discipline and regulation arena there has been much discussion as to the ideal composition of Panels entrusted to adjudicate upon the actions of professionals. Traditionally, the majority, if not all, of Panel members, including the Chairperson of the Panel, would have belonged to the same profession as the Respondent against whom allegations are being made. Lay members of Panels would have been in the minority. However, times have changed and there has been a substantial move away from such 'self-regulation', as professions are now under pressure to avoid any suggestion of partiality or accusations of professionals protecting their own. The role of the lay person is becoming increasingly important, with some regulators considering appointing a lay chair, or composing a Panel where the majority of, or indeed all, members are lay.
Consideration and consultation on such developments should certainly be encouraged, in the context of the wider and ongoing debate in the field of professional discipline and regulation. Professional regulation must give proper consideration to the public interest, and any suggestion of a profession protecting its own would be in direct conflict with the principles of transparency and public accountability which must underpin modern regulatory schemes. Arguably, a Panel significantly or entirely composed of lay members is important in seeking to ensure the appropriate perception of objectivity and transparency, recognising the public interest.
However, where does this leave the professional – is there a risk that his interests may be overshadowed by those of the public in general? There is a real question as to whether the lay member may for example be in a position to grasp adequately, and place in the appropriate perspective, complex technical evidence. It is sometimes suggested in this context that lay members may have unreasonable or unrealistic expectations and may as a consequence reach unfairly harsh decisions on conduct and sanction. That said, there is a degree of anecdotal evidence that professionals, mindful of the watchful public eye, may in fact tend to expect higher standards of their fellow professionals that would lay members of the public.
There is arguably a balance to be reached by regulators when considering the composition of their disciplinary panels. Inherent in modern professional regulation is the need to reconcile the interests of the individual members with those of the wider public, and lay membership of panels is undoubtedly one ingredient in this balance. As further changes are considered by regulators in this area, it will be interesting to observe how far the pendulum swings towards recognition of the public interest in the form of lay representation.
Ultimately, the ratio of lay to professional membership of a panel may however be less important in maintaining public confidence in the professions than the establishment and maintenance of appropriate professional standards, in which respect every professional has an important role to play. "Self-regulation" - in the sense of individual professionals taking individual responsibility for meeting those standards - is critical in instilling public confidence.