Sharp increase in disciplinary complaints against architects

We have recently obtained figures from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which show that there has been a significant increase this year in the amount of disciplinary complaints being made against architects.

In 2019, RIBA received 41 individual complaints. That followed a record of 43 complaints the year before. That record has been smashed as the latest figures show that 53 complaints have been received up to November 2020.

Information published by the Architects Registration Board (ARB), the independent regulator of all UK registered architects, also indicates that there has been a significant increase in the number of complaints to the ARB. The most serious complaints are dealt with at a hearing before the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) of the ARB. This year, the PCC has already concluded 23 hearings involving allegations of unacceptable professional conduct and/or serious professional incompetence and which resulted in a sanction being imposed. That compares with just 14 PCC hearings in 2019. There is also a notable upward trend of more severe sanctions being imposed by the PCC, with 11 of the 23 hearings concluded in 2020 resulting in either a Suspension or Erasure Order being made against the architect. This compares to only one Suspension and one Erasure Order in 2019.

This trend is consistent with the number of complaints which Kennedys are defending and, in our view, is likely to increase further next year.

Reasons for the increase

We consider that the increase in complaints is due to a combination of the following factors:

Access to justice issues

As we noted in our last article, the increased costs of litigation coupled with the downturn in the economy continues to be a major factor in claimants using the disciplinary process to ‘test the waters’ before deciding whether to bring civil proceedings which can be expensive.

COVID-19

COVID-19 has resulted in many people being furloughed and/or spending an increased amount of time at home as a result of altered working arrangements. This has given people more time to consider their position where a project has potentially gone wrong and also more time to prepare and submit a complaint to the RIBA and/or the ARB.

The circumstances of COVID-19 itself may also be the reason behind some of the complaints being made where, for example, architects have been unable to properly fulfil inspection duties or where a shortage of professional resources has had an impact on the architect’s performance.

Awareness of, and accessibility to, the disciplinary process

It does appear that claimants and their solicitors are becoming much more aware of the ARB and RIBA regulatory process and are increasingly using the threat of a regulatory complaint as a pressure point for settlement of a civil claim. With the launch of the new Code of Professional Conduct and the Code of Practice last year, which sets a higher benchmark for architects and are more detailed and specific than the previous codes, we expect the awareness of the regulatory regimes to increase further.

Comment

We predict a further significant increase in the number of complaints against architects in 2021, not just because of the reasons set out above, but because of the impact of COVID-19 which has reshaped our working world.

With more people set to work from home in the long-term, we are seeing an increase in domestic building projects in order to create more space (e.g. home extensions and conversions). The vast majority of disciplinary complaints against architects relate to domestic building projects. With an expected significant rise in those projects, we can expect to see a commensurate rise in complaints against architects in the future.

Read others items in Professions and Financial Lines Brief - December 2020

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