On 1 May 2018, the General Dental Council (GDC) changed the process by which a complainant in fitness to practice proceedings can make comments on the observations filed by registrants in advance of assessment by the Case Examiners. The changes were made following a consultation in September 2017.[1]

What changed?

Previously, the registrant’s observations to the Case Examiners were sent to the complainant with an invitation to comment. Where such comments were received the registrant had an opportunity to respond before the papers were considered by the Case Examiners.

Under the new process, once the registrant’s observations are received, they are reviewed by a caseworker. If there is nothing in the observations, which calls for a response from the complainant the papers will be sent to the Case Examiners directly. The observations will be sent to the complainant for information only.

However, if the caseworker considers that the observations call for a response, the informant will be offered an opportunity to comment. Where comments are received from the complainant they are provided to the registrant who may respond.

A more streamlined process

Explaining the rationale behind the change, the GDC has said:

‘In most cases, comments provided by informants at this stage offer no new information, and tend to repeat the information first submitted as part of their concern. The GDC is well aware that a lengthy fitness to practise process is stressful for both registrants and informants, and is concerned that its current practice of always requesting observations from informants can add several weeks to the process without providing any benefit to the investigation.’[2]

The GDC expects that this change will shorten the case review process by 29 working days – from an average of 9.2 weeks to 5.8 weeks.

Guidance to caseworkers

To assist caseworkers in deciding whether further comments on the observations may be necessary, the GDC prepared guidance which provides a non-exhaustive list of categories setting out when a complainant should be invited to comment, including where:[3]

  1. new evidence is provided by the registrant as part of his or her observations;
  2. the registrant’s observations provide a substantially different version of events to those alleged by the informant;
  3. the registrant’s observations make assertions which have the potential to undermine the credibility of the informant which the informant should be allowed the opportunity to refute; and/or
  4. fairness otherwise dictates that the informant should have the opportunity to respond

If the caseworker has any doubts whether the complainant should be invited to comment, they should ask for advice from one of the senior fitness to practice lawyers.

Outcome of the Consultation

The GDC’s consultation response[4] noted that the responses they received had been mostly supportive of the change. The Professional Standards Authority, for example, welcomed the shortened investigation time. In contrast, the General Medical Council did not support the change and stated that their approach of providing the complainant with the observations ensures the transparency of the proceedings.

Putting the theory into practice

In response to our Freedom of Information Act request the GDC provided the following information with respect to the mean time from case initiation to the Case Examiners’ initial decision:

CE decisions made between 1 May 2017 and 30 April 2018

  • Cases initiated (i.e. received by the GDC) at any time 323 days
  • Cases initiated (i.e. received by the GDC) on or after 1 May 2017 198 days

CE decisions made between 1 May 2018 and 1 October 2018

  • Cases initiated (i.e. received by the GDC) at any time 346 days
  • Cases initiated (i.e. received by the GDC) on or after 1 May 2018 107 days

It must be noted that the above means include all cases, including those that have been ‘on hold’ at some point in time. Consequently the means above represent the amount of time that the case was open with the GDC, rather than necessarily the amount of time that the case was being worked on by the GDC.

Comment

Whilst it is still early days for this change, the figures suggest a move in the right direction with average times for case progression falling. The explanation is likely to be multifactorial and it remains to be seen whether these apparent improvements are sustained over time.