How to respond to a complaint of unprofessional conduct
The dreaded moment arrives when you open your email and there is a notification from Council, in the opening paragraph that has the words, “… please be informed that Council received a complaint, and it is alleged that …”
Wondering whether to respond or not respond to a complaint?
In terms of Section 39 of the Pharmacy Act, 53 of 1974, Council has the power to investigate a person on its register on any matter, complaint, charge or allegation of improper or disgraceful conduct that is brought to its attention.
Part of such enquiry is that, in terms of Regulation 2 (a) of the Regulations relating to the conduct of inquiries in terms of Chapter V of the Act (GNR. 496 published on 8 June 2001), the Registrar may:
- inform the respondent of the complaint/allegation
- give the respondent the opportunity to provide reasons why they consider the complaint/allegation does not constitute unprofessional conduct
- warn the respondent that if they do provide such reason, it may be used as evidence at a preliminary investigation, or informal inquiry or formal inquiry.
Choosing not to respond
As a respondent, you have rights, and one of those rights is the right not to incriminate yourself. It is acceptable if you choose not to provide the Registrar with reasons why the complaint/allegation does not constitute unprofessional conduct. Respondents who choose to exercise such right are not prejudiced in the process – just be aware that when the Committee of Preliminary Investigation (CPI) reviews the matter, they make a recommendation based on the evidence they have been provided with.
Deciding to respond
What if you choose to provide the Registrar with reasons why you think the complaint/allegation against you does not constitute unprofessional conduct? It is this decision by respondents that has prompted the Disciplinary Committees of Council to appeal to respondents who provide such explanations, to do so as detailed and comprehensively as possible.
Why your response should be detailed and comprehensive
In the event that a respondent does have good reason to believe the complaint/allegation does not amount to unprofessional conduct (or as stated in legal terms you have a valid defense), providing such defense in detail with supporting evidence may result in either the matter being disposed of with no further action being taken, or the proposed sanction being substantially reduced due to mitigating circumstances.
By taking the time and carefully drafting a detailed response, including documentary and, where relevant, photographic evidence, a respondent may be saving themselves the time and cost of appearing in front of the Committee of Informal Inquiry (CII) or the Committee of Formal Inquiry (CFI).
What to do if you decide to provide reasons
- Read the letter which details the complaint/allegation carefully.
- If the complaint/allegation appears vague or there appears to be insufficient detail provided, contact the Legal Services and Professional Conduct Unit of the Office of the Registrar and ask for more details.
- Provide your response in a manner that is comprehensive and worded in a way that enables someone with little or no knowledge of the facts to understand what you are explaining.
- Provide documentary evidence to support your explanation.
- If needs be, contact your professional association and request their assistance – they will be able to advise you.
- Pharmacy support personnel are encouraged to seek assistance from the relevant supervising pharmacist/s or responsible pharmacist.
- If you work for a company that provides legal assistance, get such assistance. However, if it is an organisational policy to respond on your behalf, do not assume that such response will be sent to Council, or that such response will be accurate. In the end, it is you who is the respondent and you will be held accountable for such communication to Council.
Summary of what to do if you provide reasons
If you, as a respondent in a disciplinary investigation matter, choose to provide Council with reasons why you believe the complaint/allegation against you does not constitute unprofessional conduct, you need to:
- understand the complaint/allegation
- seek further/more details if necessary
- seek assistance from your employer or professional association
- provide a detailed explanation
- provide documentary evidence to support your explanation
Remember, you as the respondent are accountable to Council for your response.