Walker v Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
Reference:  UKPC 64
Court: Privy Council
Judge: Lords Walker, Mance and Neuberger
Date of judgment: 21 Nov 2007
Summary: Privy Council - Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons - Professional discipline - Appeal on penalty - Inadequate reasons - Distinction between removal and suspension - Effect of power to reinstate - Mitigation - Necessity of sanction
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Jacob Dean (Appellant)
Instructing Solicitors: Hill Dickinson for Dr Walker
Dr Walker, a senior and respected vet of 26 years standing, was found guilty by a Disciplinary Committee of the RCVS on two charges of disgraceful conduct in a professional respect. He had backdated entries in the ‘passports’ of two racehorses to make it appear as if they had received booster vaccinations within the 12 month period required by the Jockey Club. The boosters themselves remained effective for at least 15 months, so his actions had created no risk to animal welfare. The Disciplinary Committee ordered that Dr Walker’s name be removed from the register of veterinary surgeons. He appealed on penalty only. The appeal lay to the Privy Council.
Whether the Privy Council should set aside the decision of the Disciplinary Committee to remove Dr Walker from the register; and if so what was the appropriate sanction.
The reasoning of the Disciplinary Committee was flawed because it grouped all cases of false certification together in one bracket and did not take sufficient account of the particular circumstances of the case. The Board of the Privy Council therefore considered the question of penalty afresh. Taking into account previous decisions by the RCVS, a “striking” body of testimonials to Dr Walker’s expertise and the high regard in which he is held in the profession and by his clients, along with Dr Walker’s otherwise unblemished career, the circumstances of the offence and his frankess and remorse the appropriate penalty was 6 months suspension.
This case emphasises the need for professional disciplinary tribunals to give sufficient reasons for their decisions. The Board recognised that the reasons were prepared quickly and informally by a lay body but nevertheless found that the brevity of the reasons, and the criticisms which could be made of the reasons which were given, required the Board to consider the matter afresh.
The Board also rejected the RCVS’s invitation to give weight to the fact that Dr Walker could apply for readmission to the register after a period of 10 months. A clear distinction should be recognised between removal and suspension. Any argument that it was appropriate to pass the maximum penalty having regard to the right to reapply after 10 months was “inimical to the transparency at which any tribunal engaged in sentencing or sanctioning misconduct should aim.”