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Mr Jemmie Williams

THE ARCHITECTS REGISTRATION BOARD

PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT COMMITTEE

In the matter of

Mr Jemmie Williams (037907G)

held on 20 July 2015

at

8 Weymouth Street

London W1W 5BU

—————–

Present:

Mr Paul Housego (Chair)

Ms Judy Carr (PCC Architect Member)

Mr Stephen Neale (PCC Lay Member)

Mr Stephen Battersby (Clerk to the PCC)

 

—————–

 

Mr Iain Miller of Bevan Brittan LLP appeared on behalf of the ARB.

Mr Jemmie Williams was not in attendance.

 

Allegations

 

1.       Mr Williams was called before the Professional Conduct Committee (“the Committee”) of the Architects Registration Board (“the Board”) having been convicted on 17 July 2014 of one count of dishonestly making a false statement to obtain benefit/advantage/payment.

 

2.       The relevant provision of the Code is:-

A disciplinary order may be made against you if you are convicted of a criminal offence other than where that offence has no material relevance to your fitness to practise as an architect.

 

Summary

 

3.       Mr Williams claimed state benefits although he had capital to an extent that made him ineligible, and signed a declaration to obtain that benefit that was false. The benefit that he was paid and to which he was not entitled was £7926.14.

 

Complaint

 

4.       The Board brings the allegation following a self-referral by Mr Wiiliams by email on 30 September 2014, in which he described a “minor conviction”. Mr Williams was requested to provide details of the conviction and did so on 23 October 2014.

 

Burden and standard of proof

 

5.       The ARB is required to prove the allegations to the civil standard; that it is more likely than not that any event occurred. The Committee has in mind throughout its deliberations that the right to practise a profession is involved in these proceedings and proceeds upon the basis that the Human Rights Act 1998 will apply.  In particular Mr Williams has the right to a fair trial and to respect for his private and family life under Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, as incorporated within UK law by that Act.

 

6.       The conviction is proved by a certificate of conviction, and it is not open to Mr Williams to go behind that certificate.

 

Preliminary matters

 

7.       Mr Williams did not attend the hearing. The Committee was referred to the service of the papers. The clerk advised the Committee that the provisions as to service set out in the rules, Rule 6a had been complied with, as the notice of the hearing, with the other documents required to be supplied, were sent to Mr Williams on 8 May 2015, so giving more than the required 42 days notice of this hearing. Accordingly the Committee found that the notice of hearing was properly served.

 

8.       The Committee next considered whether to proceed in the absence of Mr Williams. The Clerk’s advice was sought and accepted. The panel was referred to the case of R-v-Jones [2002] UKHL 5, which Tait v The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) [2003] UKPC 34 states is also applicable to professional conduct proceedings.

 

9.       The Committee considered carefully Mr Williams’ letters asking for an adjournment, which are generalised and give no specific information. The Committee noted that the previous hearing on 30 April 2015 had been adjourned. Notice of this present hearing was served on 8 May 2015 and Mr Williams wrote on 29 May 2015 to request a further adjournment. The papers themselves were with Mr Williams by 8 April 2015 at the latest, as he said at the previous hearing on 30 April 2015.

 

10.   Accordingly Mr Williams has known exactly what allegation he faces, with all the small number of supporting documents, for over three months, and has had over two months notice of today’s hearing.

 

11.   Where a person is ill it will usually be unfair to proceed in his absence. Mr Williams does not state that he is ill.

 

12.   Mr Williams sets out no practical difficulty in attending: he states only that he has other legal cases for which he has to prepare and so has not the time to prepare for this hearing. Mr Williams provided no information as the cases with which he is involved. The only concrete information given by Mr Williams was in his letter to the Board of Friday 17 July 2015 where he stated that 20 July 2015 “coincides with the required filing date in the court proceedings” but gave no other information and did not state why such a date makes attendance at this hearing difficult for him. He did not say why the need to file a document in another case made it difficult for him to attend today.

 

13.   There is a public interest in conducting professional regulatory proceedings expeditiously.

 

14.   The Committee noted that in this case there would be no difficulty with the recollection of witnesses being impaired by delay, as there is no factual dispute to be decided.

 

15.   The Committee considered:

–       whether the person had requested an adjournment. Mr Williams had requested an adjournment.

–       whether the person would be likely to attend any adjourned hearing. The Committee noted that Mr Williams attended the previous hearing. However he had not attended this hearing and there was no practical reason given as to why he could not have attended to explain precisely why he submitted that had been unable to prepare for the hearing today. The Committee considers it unlikely that Mr Williams would attend any adjourned hearing.

–       at the previous hearing Mr Williams stated that he needed time to arrange legal representation. Mr Williams made no reference to legal representation in his present application for adjournment, and the Committee noted that Mr Williams stated that he is a litigant is person in the other litigation in which he says he is engaged. This is not now a reason given for seeking an adjournment.

–       the case involves submissions as whether the conviction has “material relevance to your fitness to practise as an architect” and if so to hear mitigation from Mr Williams. This would not require preparation of such length that two or three months would not be long enough, even with other commitments.

–       Mr Williams has made the time to write lengthy letters seeking adjournment that are replete with legal argument. That time would have enabled him to compose detailed submissions had he the mind so to do.

 

16.   A decision to proceed in the absence of the person facing the allegation should be taken with the utmost care, and caution. An Article 8 right to a private life is engaged, as the proceedings impact on the practice of a profession. The risk of prejudice to the individual must be carefully weighed, and the conclusion that someone has deliberately and voluntarily absented himself from a hearing requires the Committee to find that there is a clear and unqualified – unequivocal – intention not to attend.

 

17.   In this case the Committee finds that Mr Williams has intentionally absented himself from the hearing, and that the public interest requires the Committee to proceed in his absence.

 

18.   Mr Williams submitted that he should be anonymised and that the hearing should be in private.

 

19.   The Committee received submissions from Mr Miller and advice from its Clerk. It accepted the advice of the Clerk. This referred to the case of Miller v GMC [2013] EWHC 1934 (Admin). This case set out with the clarity that the starting point is that there should be public hearings. Insofar as Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights are concerned, paragraph 11 of that case set out that “the press and the public may be excluded from all or part of the trial in the interests of morals, public order, or national security in a democratic society, where the interests of juveniles or the protection of public life of the parties are required, or to the extent strictly necessary in the opinion of the court in special circumstances of the case would prejudice the interests of justice.”

 

20.   The only part of that sentence that could be relevant is the private life of Mr Williams. The allegation relates to a conviction, which was in a public court and which is public knowledge.

 

21.   Paragraph 12 of the case report stated that the common law general rule should only be departed from to the extent that such a departure is strictly necessary. It is not strictly necessary in this case. The clear default position under Article 6 is that hearings should be in public. It is for Mr Williams to prove both the need for any derogation from those rights and for a need to delegate to the extent claimed. The case records that the right to public hearings is jealously guarded.

 

22.   In this case Mr Williams gives four reasons seeking anonymity and a private hearing.

 

23.   First he alleges that the disciplinary regime of the Board is incompatible with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. The Committee does not understand this submission. In any event the conviction is not yet spent.

 

24.   Secondly Mr Williams asserts that public disclosure of the charge is disproportionate to the aim of the ARB disciplinary regime. The Committee comprises two lay members to represent the public, and the Committee as a whole feels that the disclosure of the charge is not disproportionate. On the contrary, since part of the function of the Committee is to maintain and uphold professional standards and the reputation of the profession, it is essential that professional disciplinary hearings are public.

 

25.   Mr Williams asserts that public disclosure interferes with his right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Committee agrees that the Article 8 right to a private life is engaged under Article 8(1). It considers that interference with those rights is proportionate within Article 8(2).

 

26.   Mr Williams submitted there is no sufficient public interest in conducting proceedings in public, and identifying him, such as to justify the curtailment of his right to respect of his private life. The Committee disagrees in principle, and in the circumstances of this case, which relate to a public conviction of a criminal offence.

 

27.   Accordingly the case will proceed in public, and without anonymity.

 

Defence

 

28.   Mr Williams did not deny the fact of the conviction nor give any indication of why it might not be relevant.

 

29.   The Committee noted that the conviction was of one offence, he being acquitted of the other, and it was four years ago, and did not involve practice as an architect, and the money had been repaid. Mr Williams was a man of good character before the offence and has committed no offence since. He has no previous disciplinary record.

 

Evidence

 

30.   The Committee perused the four page report of the Board’s solicitor with accompanying documents running to a further 24 pages. The Board called no oral evidence.

 

31.   The Committee read and considered the letters written by Mr Williams to the Board and to its clerk.

 

Findings of fact

 

32.   Mr Williams pleaded not guilty to two allegations. The jury could not agree on one, and the judge directed an acquittal. Mr Williams was convicted of the second.

 

33.   The judge’s sentencing remarks were:

 

“You have been convicted unanimously by the jury of one count of dishonest representation for obtaining benefit. You were charged with having obtained the benefit dishonestly on 4th February 2010. The amount of benefit that you obtained over a period of time was £7,926.14.

 

It is a very sad day, Mr Williams, when a man of hitherto previous good character is losing his good name. I cannot think of a greater punishment than the loss of good character for a professional man. So, bearing in mind your age; your previous good character; the fact that you have repaid by way of a consent order the larger amount in relation to the housing benefit, and bearing in mind that you have not been in any trouble since you were arrested and charged for these matters; bearing in mind also the history of this case, that the allegations go back some four years and appear to have taken two years to come to court I am persuaded by Mr Carrs, just, that I should not send you to prison and should not impose a custodial sentence even if it is a suspended sentence. It seems to me that the appropriate way to deal with you is by the imposition of a community order for a period of twelve months.

 

You have a number of skills and you have expressed a desire in your evidence to serve the community by working with non-profit organisations. Well, this will be your chance. You will do unpaid work within the community for one hundred and fifty hours subject to your fitness to do so.

 

and later:

 

“Mr Williams, I make it clear that a reason for going down the route of community order is that I am acutely aware that the next thing that will happen is that you will self-report to your professional body and they may strike you off there all (sic), and so you will not be able to practice as an architect. All of those features I have taken into account, but the saddest thing is that you have lost your good name. It is your fault because you were greedy and dishonest.”

 

34.   The work was to be completed by 16 July 2015. The Committee does not know whether that work was completed but assumes that this work has been completed satisfactorily.

 

ARB submissions

 

35.   Mr Miller submitted that an offence of dishonesty was always relevant to the practice of a professional. The Committee had its indicative sanctions guidance to follow, and it was a matter for the Committee as to what sanction to impose.

 

Mr Williams’ submissions and mitigation

 

36.   Mr Williams made no formal submissions to the Committee about the matter. The Clerk pointed out to the Committee the matters set out above under the heading of defence. There has been no previous disciplinary finding against Mr Williams.

 

Discussion and conclusion

 

37.   The Committee finds the allegation proved. The conviction is not connected in any way with practice as an architect. However the test is whether the conviction has material relevance to fitness to practise.

 

38.   Benefit fraud is a crime against society (which funds the money stolen). It reflects very badly on the profession that a member of it should be convicted of such an offence. This was not a one off action or an isolated incident. It was a consistent course of dishonesty over a period of time.

 

Sanction

 

39.   The primary purpose of sanctions is not to be punitive (though this may be their effect) but to protect members of the public, to maintain the collective reputation of the profession (and the Board as its regulator), and to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct and competence. Sanctions also help ensure that the profession better understands the importance of professional standards.

40.   The Committee’s Indicative Sanctions Guidance states that in cases involving criminal convictions architects will be referred to the Committee when they have been convicted of a criminal offence that is relevant to their fitness to practise as an architect. The architect cannot argue the facts of the matter that led to the conviction, but can make submissions as to why no further or a more lenient sanction should be made by the Committee than would otherwise be the case.

 

41.   The purpose of a hearing in relation to a conviction is not to punish the architect a second time for the same offence, but to protect the public and to maintain the collective reputation of the profession.

 

42.   ‘The reputation of the profession is more important than the fortunes of any individual member’ (Bingham L.J inBolton v Law Society [1994]).

 

43.   The Committee noted that it should not take cases involving other professions as other than indicative of an approach to be taken and they are not to be taken as precedent.

 

44.   Mr Williams chose not to attend the hearing today. That does not affect the decision of the Committee save that Mr Williams’ absence deprived the Committee of the chance to hear from him.

 

45.   Appearance before this Committee is in itself salutary. The Act does not require the Committee to impose a sanction in every case where a guilty finding is reached, so the Committee may choose to make no disciplinary order.  If it decides to impose a sanction, the Committee commences at the lowest sanction, and only if it decides that sanction is not appropriate does it move to the next level of sanction. Having arrived at a sanction that it is minded to impose the Committee then reviews the next sanction above so as to satisfy itself that this would be too severe a sanction before arriving at a final conclusion. If the Committee decides on a fine, it is limited by the Architects Act 1997 to £2500.

 

46.   The Committee also bears in mind that Mr Williams has already been punished for the offence of which he was convicted. However the Judge’s sentencing remarks clearly had in mind that there would be a sanction imposed by this Committee and bore that in mind when sentencing. The sanction of this Committee is therefore not a double penalty.

 

47.   In all the particular circumstances of this case the Committee considers that a sanction is required because of the need to declare and uphold professional standards.

 

48.   The Committee identified the following aggravating factors:

 

49.   The aggravating factors are that this was a conviction for dishonesty, a lengthy benefit fraud. It was, as the Committee noted when deciding that the allegation was proved, a crime against society.

 

50.   The plea to the charge was one of not guilty, so that Mr Williams is not able to demonstrate any level of insight prior to the conviction, and that plea undermines subsequent assertions of insight, already somewhat hard to establish given that the self report described it only as a “minor conviction”.

 

51.   Mr Williams promised mitigation and a defence but provided none, and so there are no mitigating factors to consider, save those set out in the heading “defence”.

 

52.   A benefit fraud conviction requires a disciplinary sanction.

 

53.   The indicative sanctions guidance states:

 

54.   Reprimands:

 

Where the PCC decides that it is appropriate to impose a sanction in relation to a guilty finding, a reprimand is the lowest sanction that can be applied. It may be used in relation to those offences at the lower end of the scale of seriousness, where and where it would be appropriate to mark the conduct or competence as being unacceptable.

 

This sanction may be considered where the following factors are present (this list is not exhaustive):

 

–               Evidence that the conduct or competence has not seriously affected clients/the public

–               Insight into failings

–               Genuine expression of regret

–               Corrective steps taken

–               Previous good disciplinary history

 

Like all disciplinary orders a reprimand will remain permanently on an architect’s record, but only published for two years after the date of sanction.

 

55.   This matter is too serious for a reprimand.

 

56.   Penalty orders:

 

Penalty orders are fines of up to level 4 on the standard scale of fines for summary offences, currently set at £2,500.  A penalty order may be used in relation to those offences too serious to warrant a reprimand, or where a lack of remorse or understanding is displayed.

 

This sanction may be considered where the following factors are present (this list is not exhaustive):

 

–                      Offence is too serious to warrant a reprimand

–                      Limited or lack of remorse

–                      Architect has benefitted financially from the offence

 

57.   All these three are applicable (though the financial benefit has been removed by the compensation paid).

 

58.   Suspension orders:

 

A suspension order may be imposed by the Committee for serious offences, but not so grave as to warrant erasure from the Register. Suspensions are for a maximum period of two years and the architect is automatically reinstated to the Register at the end of the suspension period. Any individual suspended from the Register cannot use the title ‘Architect’ in business or practice.

 

This sanction may be considered where the following factors are present (this list is not exhaustive):

 

–                      An offence so serious that a reprimand or penalty order would be insufficient to protect the public or the reputation of the profession

–                      Behaviour that is not fundamentally incompatible with continuing to be an architect

–                      No evidence of entrenched integrity issues

–                      The PCC is satisfied that the behaviour is unlikely to be repeated

–                      Conduct capable of being rectified

–                      Non-payment of a previously imposed penalty order

 

A suspension order is publicised for the period of suspension and a subsequent two years from the date of reinstatement.

 

59.   The Committee decided that a reprimand or penalty order is not sufficient to protect the reputation of the profession. However this was behaviour that in the view of the Committee is fundamentally incompatible with Mr Williams continuing to be an architect.

 

60.   Erasure orders:

 

Any individual erased from the Register is not permitted to use the title ‘Architect’ in business or practice [nor make any reference to membership or fellowship of RIBA.] An erasure order is publicised for a period of five years after the date of sanction.

 

An erasure order may be imposed by the Committee for those offences that are so serious that only a permanent removal from the Register will protect the public and/or the reputation of the profession. Erasure from the Register is permanent, though an application may be made to the ARB for re-entry after no less than two years. The Committee may make a recommendation as to a minimum period of time before such an application should be considered.

 

This sanction may be considered where the following factors are present (this list is not exhaustive):

 

–                      A serious criminal offence

–                      Behaviour that is fundamentally incompatible with continuing to be an architect

–                      The PCC lacking confidence that a repeat offence will not occur

–                      Dishonesty or a severe lack of integrity

–                      A persistent lack of insight into the seriousness of actions or consequences

–                      Non-payment of a previously imposed penalty order

 

61.   This was a serious criminal offence of dishonesty. Only barely did Mr Williams escape a custodial sentence, and the Judge’s sentencing remarks indicated that he thought erasure would follow. This was a premeditated course of dishonesty, motivated, according to the sentencing Judge, by greed.

 

62.   The only possible sanction in this case is one of erasure, and the Committee so orders. The Committee’s recommendation as to a minimum period before an application can be made for readmission to the Register is five years.

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