The Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service (HCPTS) is expected to become fully operational today - 28 April 2017. This will mark a milestone in the separation of the investigation and adjudication functions of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in its fitness to practise procedures.

In this briefing we explore what this change means, both in terms of immediate practical impact for those involved in HCPC fitness to practise proceedings, and its broader implications.

Who will the change affect?

This change will affect to some degree all those regulated by the HCPC, but particularly those subject to fitness to practise proceedings and their advisors.

Those regulated by the HCPC include art therapists, biomedical scientists, chiropodists, podiatrists, clinical scientists, dietitians, hearing aid dispensers, occupational therapists, operating department practitioners, orthoptists, paramedics, physiotherapists, practitioner psychologists, prosthetists, orthotists, radiographers, social workers in England and speech and language therapists.

What is the new Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service?

The Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service is part of the HCPC's fitness to practise directorate. It will be responsible for listing hearings at the new Health and Care Professions Tribunal, and for providing administrative assistance within the hearings themselves to ensure they are conducted in a fair, efficient and timely manner.

The new Tribunal is tasked with adjudicating fitness to practise cases, replacing the Practice Committees of the HCPC.

Finally, a new Tribunal Advisory Committee consisting of six members, none of whom may be a Council member, will advise the HCPC on matters relevant to the appointment of Tribunal Panellists, their training and assessment, and guidance on matters of fair practice and procedure before the Tribunal.

What is the impact of this change?

The short answer is that, for registrants and their advisors, save for certain superficial rebranding and administrative alterations, the transition should be largely seamless, with very little immediate practical change.

The move is largely symbolic, aiming to offer reassurance to those facing fitness to practise processes, the wider registrant membership and the public, that determinations at HCPT hearings will be reached fairly and impartially.

This development follows the establishment by the General Medical Council (GMC) of the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) in 2012 to adjudicate on allegations it brings against doctors and surgeons. The MPTS has since undergone further substantive separation from the GMC's investigatory function by its establishment in statute as a separate committee of the General Council. Whilst the HCPTS is not organisationally separate from the HCPC (tribunal service staff are employed by HCPC), the HCPC was one of the first regulators to end the practice of Council members sitting on Practice Committees, meaning that there is already functional separation.

In terms of the broader picture, this move is significant in two ways. Firstly, it recognises the important universal principle of justice that decisions ought to be (and be seen to be) reached independently of those bringing and defending allegations. Many professional regulators already have effective safeguards in place to achieve this, but in time it can be expected that others will follow suit in making separations both more visible and substantive, in order to reinforce the fairness and authoritativeness of determinations. Secondly, as regulators take steps which bring their procedures increasingly in line with one another, this feeds into a longer-term debate about the possibility of future mergers between healthcare regulators. As discussed in our previous briefing on this topic, Ever Closer Union?, the prospect of varying degrees of merger between regulators has been mooted in the past, not just with economic ends in mind, but also to simplify and increase consistency of approaches to investigations and adjudication outcomes for all health and social care professionals.