Service and proceeding in absence
The Panel was satisfied that there was good service. Whilst the Registrant absented himself voluntarily and did not seek a postponement of the hearing, he has been in regular and lengthy contact with the Council. It was held to be in the public interest to continue in the Registrant’s absence.
Hearing in public
In reaching its decision to continue in public, the Panel heeded the HCPC Guidelines and the Legal Assessor’s advice. In the Panel’s view, the Registrant did not put forward a sufficient case to justify this hearing being held in private. The matters which are the subject of the allegations are in the public domain and have been at least since the conviction of 20 September 2012.
The Panel determined whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise was currently impaired by reason of his conviction. In doing so, the Panel considered whether his conduct was remediable, whether it has been remedied and whether or not it is likely to be repeated.
The nature of the conviction relates to the standards of the profession as well as the Registrant’s personal standards of ethics and behaviour.
The Panel had regard to all the circumstances of this case, including the fact that the Registrant has no previous fitness to practise history. It also noted that there is no evidence of any complaint against him since the events in question. In addition, the Panel took account of the Registrant’s written submissions that: the offence of which he was convicted is not an offence in other jurisdictions and he is now taking steps to appeal the conviction.
The Panel noted that the conviction was for a serious matter and that the Registrant remains subject to a supervision order as part of his sentence. In view of the foregoing, the Panel found that the Registrant is currently impaired.
Decision on Sanction
In making its determination, the Panel had regard to the HCPC’s “Standards of conduct, performance and ethics”. This provides at Clause 3:
“You must keep high standards of personal conduct, as well as professional conduct. You should be aware that poor conduct outside of your professional life may still affect someone’s confidence in you and the profession”
Clause 13 provides:
“You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession. You must justify the trust that other people place in you by acting with honesty and integrity at all times. You must not get involved in any behaviour or activity which is likely to damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.”
The fact and nature of the conviction are likely damage the public’s confidence in the Registrant as an individual and as a social worker. The Registrant has breached the trust that has been placed in him to behave in accordance with professional standards at all times. The substance of the conviction indicates involvement with criminal behaviour or activity which is likely to damage public confidence in the Registrant and his profession.
In determining the sanction, the Panel noted that the Registrant is still subject to supervision by the Court for twelve months from the date of conviction, 20 September 2012. It considered its powers in ascending order. It finds that “no action” is inappropriate: the conviction is for a serious offence and court supervision continues. Similar reasons apply to the sanctions of “mediation” and “caution”. “conditions of practice” are not practicable or workable.
The Panel next considered suspension and the following facts. The court imposed a non-custodial sentence, part of which includes a currently continuing supervision order.
The Registrant is contemplating an appeal and has found a barrister who is supporting him. He returned to the police the external hard disk drive containing the offensive material after this had been given back to him after his trial. The Panel considered that such an action on the part of the Registrant, namely returning the disk drive to the police, demonstrates some insight and indicates a reduced risk of repetition of this type of offence.
The Panel has determined that suspension is the appropriate and proportionate sanction in light of the fact of the conviction and its nature. The period of suspension is for one year and will be subject to review. The Panel was aware of the need to maintain confidence in the profession and the regulatory process. The Panel was mindful of the potential for a change of circumstances if the Registrant’s appeal is successful. In any event, the decision of this Panel is subject to a review.
Under the circumstances, it was not appropriate to consider an order to strike-off.
A Panel reviewing this decision would be helped by oral and documentary evidence that the Registrant has taken steps to update and maintain his professional knowledge.
Order: The Panel directed that the Registrar suspend the registration of Stewart Hal Ford from the register for a period of twelve months effective from the date of this Order.
Right of Appeal:
You may appeal to the appropriate court against the decision of the Panel and the order it has made against you. In this case the appropriate court is the High Court in England and Wales.
Under Articles 29 and 38 of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, an appeal must be made to the court not more than 28 days after the date when this notice is served on you. The order made against you will not take effect until that appeal period has expired or, if you appeal during that period, until that appeal is disposed of or withdrawn.
The Panel makes an Interim Suspension Order under Article 31(2) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, the same being necessary to protect members of the public and being otherwise in the public interest. This order will expire: (if no appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) upon the expiry of the period during which such an appeal could be made; (if an appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) the final determination of that appeal, subject to a maximum period of 18 months.
The final hearing was held at The Health and Care Professions Council. The Panel decided to suspend the Registrant for a period of 12 months.