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Adjudicator conflicts of interest

This policy sets out how we will manage any conflicts of interest that arise when assessing an adjudicator’s eligibility to work on a fitness to practise case.

Adjudicator conflicts of interest policy

Last updated: 26 November 2019


About this policy

This policy sets out how Social Work England will manage any conflicts of interest that arise when assessing an adjudicator’s eligibility to work on a fitness to practise case.

Rule 7 of Social Work England’s appointment rules outlines the responsibilities of investigators, case examiners and adjudicators. They must all declare any conflict of interest that could relate to the case, whether the conflict exists or could be perceived to exist.

What is a conflict of interest?

Adjudicators make decisions based on the facts and evidence of a case. They must do this independently of Social Work England and of any other influences or interests.

A conflict of interest is when there is an actual or perceivable conflict between an adjudicator’s professional responsibilities and their personal interests. It can happen whenever an individual or organisation can exploit a professional or official role for personal gain.

Social Work England’s expectations of adjudicators are outlined in detail later in this document. But in short, they must be guided by the Nolan Principles and must carefully consider whether or not there are any potential conflicts of interest.

This is an essential way of making sure cases are heard fairly. A hearing could be considered unfair both if there is actual bias or if a fair-minded and informed observer might believe there is a real possibility the adjudicator is biased.

Examples of possible conflicts of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • having a financial or other personal interest in the outcome of a case
  • having a previous or existing relationship with anyone connected with the case
  • being active in an organisation that has declared a stance on the matters involved in the case
  • having a connection to an employer, organisation or close family member or friend involved in a case

What happens if a conflict of interest is not recognised?

Social Work England is responsible for managing conflicts of interest to make sure all cases are approached fairly.

Conflicts of interest or even perceived conflicts of interest can damage the reputation of social work as a profession and undermine the public’s confidence in the fitness to practice processes.

Failure to recognise a conflict of interest can also give the impression that Social Work England or its adjudicators are not acting in the public interest. If an adjudicator has an unresolved conflict of interest, then their decisions could be overturned by a judicial review or other legal procedure.

Conflicts of interest that are not resolved effectively can risk making any outcomes of a hearing invalid, can delay the fitness to practise process, and can result in part-heard hearings and adjournments. It’s therefore in the public’s interest and in the interest of public protection for Social Work England to manage conflicts of interest correctly.

How do Social Work England manage conflicts of interest?

When they first start working with Social Work England, adjudicators must declare any interests that could become a conflict. This information is kept on record for when an adjudicator is assigned to a fitness to practice case.

When scheduling hearings, hearing case managers review the information provided before they assign an adjudicator with the aim of minimising the risk of conflicts of interest arising. Hearing case managers will not assign a case to an adjudicator if there is a risk of a conflict. For example, if the social worker or witnesses are employed by a local authority that the adjudicator has also worked with in their role(s) outside of Social Work England.

When assigning cases, the hearing case managers will give adjudicators limited information about the case so they can declare if a conflict may arise. This will normally include information such as the names of the social worker and employers relevant to the case. Once the evidence has been given to the adjudications team, they will ask adjudicators review the evidence and to again declare any potential conflicts of interest.

Social Work England keeps a record of all cases that adjudicators have worked on. The adjudications team will avoid assigning an adjudicator to any case that involves a social worker involved in a previous case they’ve worked on, or if they have a further fitness to practice allegation that requires a hearing.

If an adjudicator informs us of a potential conflict of interest before a hearing, the hearing case manager and adjudication manager must make a decision about how to proceed. They will take the following factors into account:

  • The nature of the declared conflict
  • The potential impact on the adjudicator’s ability to reach an impartial decision
  • The potential impact on a hearing
  • The potential impact on the perceived independence of any decisions made

This must be an evidence based decision. Hearing case managers and adjudication managers must take a proportionate approach, bearing in mind the purpose of fitness to practice hearings, Social Work England’s primary objectives and a social worker’s Article 6 rights. If the managers identify a risk to any of these factors, they may choose to allocate a different adjudicator to the hearing.

If more information is needed from an adjudicator to make a decision, the hearing case manager will contact them before a decision is made.

Once a decision has been made it will be recorded and the adjudicator concerned will be notified. If any escalation is needed this will be handled by the adjudications manager and head of adjudication in the first instance. It will then be escalated to the director of fitness to practise and director of legal for any final decisions.

In cases where it is decided that an adjudicator should be removed from a hearing because of a conflict of interest we will always try to honour any block bookings or other work.

Expectations of adjudicators

The Nolan principle of integrity is an important way of maintaining the public’s confidence in Social Work England’s decision making processes.

Integrity: holders of public office must avoid any situations that may influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Decisions made by adjudicators must be based on appropriate factors and must always be made in the public’s interest. Adjudicators must not reach decisions based on their own private interests or the interests of anyone who might try to inappropriately influence them.

Adjudicators must declare and resolve any relevant interests and relationships. By doing this, they help maintain public’s confidence in the regulator and protect themselves from any accusations that they’ve acted inappropriately, or based on their own interests.

We expect adjudicators to openly communicate with hearing case managers as part of the scheduling process to address potential conflicts as soon as possible. When they are assigned to a new case and are sent the initial details, adjudicators must carefully check for any potential conflicts of interest and, if any do arise, tell the hearing case managers immediately. Adjudicators should be open and transparent and provide any information that is asked of them to make sure a proper decision can be made about potential conflict of interest.

If a conflict of interest is identified, or if there is a real possibility of an appearance of bias, adjudicators must withdraw from the hearing. If an adjudicator is asked to withdraw from a hearing on the basis of a potential or extant conflict of interest, hearing case managers will always try to find alternative work and to honour any bookings.

How to handle an unexpected conflict of interest

On rare occasions, we understand that conflicts of interest are not identified before a hearing and arise during the course of a hearing. If this happens, it must be addressed on a case by case basis as the circumstances surrounding each potential conflict will vary.

If a potential conflict arises once a hearing has started, the adjudicators should notify the hearings officer and legal advisor immediately. Following an initial discussion, the hearings officer will find out if an alternative adjudicator is available if needed. The hearing panel will inform the parties involved in the hearing of the issue, invite them to comment and hear legal advice. The panel must consider whether or not the hearing can proceed or whether a different adjudicator is needed. Once a decision has been made it will be announced in the hearing.

The factors a panel should consider are similar to those for when a conflict is identified before a hearing. These are the:

  • nature of the declared conflict
  • potential impact on the adjudicator’s ability to reach an impartial decision
  • potential impact on a hearing
  • potential impact on the perceived independence of any decisions made

This must also be an evidence based decision. Hearing case managers and adjudication managers must take a proportionate approach, bearing in mind the purpose of fitness to practice hearings, Social Work England’s primary objectives and a social worker’s Article 6 rights.

Processing and retention of data

Information given to Social Work England when carrying out this policy will be processed in agreement with data protection principles as set out in the Data Protection Act 2018. Social Work England keeps data on conflicts of interest to help with the delivery of its legal responsibilities.

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