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03 August 2016

The RCVS’ Disciplinary Committee – An Unusual Standard of Proof

A veterinary surgeon was found guilty of animal cruelty and ordered to pay over £4,500 in costs to the RSPCA, court charges and a victim surcharge earlier this year. The surgeon, who had previously been made an MBE for outstanding services to veterinary medicine, was sentenced after failing to X-ray or give adequate pain relief to a foxhound that had been brought into her practice after being hit by a car. At a previous hearing of the RCVS' Disciplinary Committee, the surgeon had been removed from the register following her own request, and had made an undertaking not to apply to be restored to the register.

In another RCVS case heard in recent months, a veterinary nurse was removed from the register after the Disciplinary Committee found that she was in possession of a number of veterinary medicines without lawful authority. The Committee also said she failed to give any or any sufficient regard to the animal welfare of six animals at a wildlife and rescue centre. The nurse had previously received a conditional discharge from the Magistrates' Court disqualifying her from keeping sheep, goats, pigs and equines as a result of the same facts.

It is noteworthy that the criminal courts were previously involved in these cases. The RCVS' Disciplinary Committee is unusual in that, unlike fitness to practise committees of most other healthcare regulatory bodies, it 'must be satisfied so that it is sure' that the alleged facts have occurred before it can move onto the next stage and decide whether the facts amount to disgraceful conduct. Requiring a court to be sure is the highest standard of proof in civil law, which equates to the criminal standard of 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Indeed, in criminal courts, this standard is often explained to juries as requiring them to be 'sure' before they find a guilty verdict.

On the other hand, Committees investigating the fitness to practise of other health professionals such as nurses, midwives, pharmacists, occupational therapists and (since 2008) doctors do not need to be 'sure'. They need only find that it was more likely than not that the allegations took place for them to be found proven, which is known as 'the balance of probabilities'. This is the standard applied for the majority of non-criminal courts and tribunals.

Although the higher standard of proof is undoubtedly beneficial to veterinary professionals appearing before the Disciplinary Committee, an interesting question arises as to why these healthcare professionals are treated differently to others. The question may also be asked, bearing in mind the change to the lower standard of proof for doctors in 2008, as to how long the status quo is likely to last for vets and other veterinary professionals.

The healthcare regulatory team at Charles Russell Speechlys has extensive experience in acting for healthcare professionals at disciplinary hearings and are able to provide guidance and support at each stage.

This article was written by Andrew Sweetman.

For more information please contact Andrew on +44 (0)20 7203 5044 or