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Like many of us I take an interest in the happenings of the RCVS and its disciplinary committees. This is becoming an even deeper interest as I work through a Masters degree in law; I am seeing how other professions regulate themselves and are regulated too.

Having said that, I am still at the level of an “everyday vet”, and what I say here should be treated as such.

The system, like any, has good and bad points. It is a long, long way from being perfect, and cannot be described as “fair” to both sides, but is what we are stuck with.

Recently things have improved a bit with the LRO (legislative reform order – not as difficult to find parliamentary time for as a full-on law) separating the Disciplinary Committee from RCVS Council, so that the people who judge a case are not members of the same council who set the guidelines (analogous to Parliament setting laws, and the judiciary enforcing and administering it).

I did actually consider applying to join the committee in the recent recruitment drive, but with my work rota I simply couldn’t guarantee I’d be available. I suppose most vets in practice will be the same, and there is a danger/likelihood of the DC being academically skewed.

I have a few issues with the system, and I am going to dip in to these in future blogs as I investigate more to try to inform myself better. Two major reservations I have are that the RCVS has the full weight and resources of the Royal College behind it, and that there is no effective appeals process.

The first issue I have is that the RCVS has, relative to the accused, enormous funds supplied by its members, being able to hire whatever barristers they deem suitable, as well as legal advisors who advise the DC. The whole process is performed on “away” turf for most (in London) rather than near where the accused vet is based. The accused vet has to supply and pay for their own representation, who may or may not be funded out of their professional insurance. If not, they will have to foot the bill themselves or represent themselves*. So the accused is paying for both sides of the process. I know there is little practical option, but it is a curiously perverse situation. I don’t yet know if the defendants costs are reimbursed if there is a dismissal of the case, but I doubt it.

So this strikes me as a lop-sided “David and Goliath” fight from the start.

David and Goliath
David and Goliath by French painter Guillaime Courtois (1628 – 1679).

A possible way to even things up would be for the RCVS to provide a defence barrister, too, though the accused vet would have the option of enlisting their own help if they desired.

There is also a lack of an effective appeals procedure. What the DC decides stands. People reading this will be thinking “what of the Privy Council?”, but the Privy Council will only overrule the RCVS DC if there has been an error on a point of law. They have declined to intervene in most appeal cases I can find because they consider themselves unable to overrule “professional judgement” of the DC. Given that the DC has a legal advisor to the DC and a “prosecution” barrister working against the accused, a legal error is unlikely. Don’t forget that taking a case to the Privy Council in the first place would likely incur significant costs as well. you can look up past Privy Council cases by using and searching for things like “veterinary” and searching restricted to the UK Privy Council.

So those are my two biggest issues with the veterinary disciplinary procedure. They are certainly not the only ones, though! I am just starting to wade through past cases as I look for a dissertation subject, and get a bit more informed, so if anything I have said here strikes a chord, or you know I have it wrong in some way, please do get in touch.

One thing I would like to do some day soon is to go along to a disciplinary hearing in London to watch the system. Hearings can take days, though, and with family and home I’d only see one day rather the whole hearing.

As a final thought, with some compassion for those affected, I wonder if anyone pays any notice of what those “removed from the register” do afterwards? How do they cope?

While in many but not all cases I agree that those removed from the register should have been, I worry that this sanction is going to be applied too broadly in the future with the Royal College’s increasing interest in what I consider our private lives. Striking a vet off doesn’t just affect them, it ruins their lives and those of any family and dependents, but it is not an equal and fair sanction, as I will cover in the future.

* Representing yourself is fraught with difficulty, law can be unbelievably complex, and the DC can infer things from the manner in which the accused conducts their case – past cases confirm this where there was an inference taken from the vigour with which the accused vet questioned witnesses. I have a hypothesis I need to test by looking through past cases, that vets representing themselves have a poorer prognosis than those who are represented professionally.

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