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The proposal seems to have its roots in the First Rate Regulator initiative announced by Nick Stace in November 2012. As part of the initiative, the College commissioned Sally Williams and Associates to conduct research amongst stakeholders and report back with recommendations for being a first rate regulator.
One of those recommendations was to move to the civil standard of proof (page 33/34 here). There is no stated rationale for this recommendation, other than: "The majority of other professional regulators have moved to the civil standard of proof".
Nevertheless, the recommendation then found its way into the RCVS 2017-2019 Strategic Plan.
The proposal was then mentioned in the published summary of the Legislation Working Party's meeting in December 2017:
"In considering reform to the disciplinary process, the Registrar noted that the RCVS is one of the only regulators (and the only healthcare-based regulator) still using the criminal standard of proof (‘beyond all reasonable doubt’) when determining the facts of a case. Most other regulators used the civil standard of proof (‘on the balance of probabilities’) when making their determinations. Consideration of moving to the civil standard has also been carried over from the College’s previous Strategic Plan and the Registrar agreed to review the last six months’ cases to assess what the likely outcome of those cases would have been under the civil standard, and the cost of change. The Working Party also decided to contact other regulators about their disciplinary processes, in order to gather information about their experiences of what does and does not work, both for long-standing issues and new reforms."
The proposal then resurfaced last week in the Veterinary Record, which reported that the College is in 'advanced discussions' about adopting the lower standard (Standard of Proof for disciplinaries could change).
The College has now issued a statement to VetNurse.co.uk as follows:
"The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is currently very much in the minority of regulators still using the criminal standard of proof ('beyond all reasonable doubt') in its disciplinary proceedings, rather than the civil standard of proof ('on the balance of probabilities').
"By comparison, all nine of the healthcare regulators in the human field (as overseen by the Professional Standards Authority) have moved to the civil standard, as have other regulators such as the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
"In our last two strategic plans we have committed to considering whether or not the RCVS should change the standard of proof in line with other regulators and these discussions have been taking place as part of the ongoing deliberations around legislative reform.
"A change to the standard of proof would require an amendment of our 2004 Procedure and Evidence Rules via the Privy Council rather than new primary legislation, but we would consult with the profession before any such changes were made and, at present, this matter has not been put before RCVS Council for a decision."
So, as it stands now, no evidence has yet been presented to the profession which supports the need for - or benefits of - a change to the standard of proof required in disciplinaries. The idea that it should be done simply because 'that's what the other regulators are doing' does not hold water. The veterinary profession is unique. According to the College's own research, it enjoys a remarkably high level of trust amongst the public. But at the same time, it also suffers one of the highest suicide rates.
Clearly Council will need to reflect extremely carefully on whether the members of such a widely trusted profession should face an even greater threat of losing their career, particularly when they seem to be at such a risk of vexatious complaints, fear of a disciplinary is already so high, and the consequences of this change on mental health in the profession could be so profound.
It may even be true to say that lives could depend on this decision.
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