How to minimise the risk of complaints

As a RIBA-appointed member of the Professional Conduct Panel, Solicitor David Brown is often involved in appraisal team work or is part of a hearing panel. Here, he discusses the workings of the two, and sets out his own observations as to how to minimise the risk of complaints and how to best deal with complaints, if one cannot be avoided.

David Brown is a Solicitor and Partner at Gullands Solicitors where he heads the construction and arbitration department, working with clients across Kent.


complaint or dispute regarding performance is very different from a complaint about professional conduct. A complaint about performance should be resolved by the professional’s own complaint’s procedures, or one of the ADR procedures. If negligence is being alleged, insurers should be informed and their instructions followed.

In the UK, complaints against a registered architect may also be made to the Architects Registration Board (ARB). Architects found to have breached the ARB’s Code may be removed or suspended from the Register which means that they can no longer use the title ‘Architect’. If a member is sanctioned by the ARB for unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, a RIBA Hearing Panel has the discretion to impose a similar sanction.

The appraisal team need to consider whether on the evidence provided, a hearing panel could find a breach of Professional Conduct. If so, they can either issue cautionary advice or decide that there is evidence sufficient to justify the continuation of the investigation by means of a hearing. Alternatively the appraisal team could decide that the complaint may be dismissed. All decisions of the appraisal team are on a majority basis.

If a complaint goes to a hearing, the panel will consist of one architect member and two lay persons (usually a solicitor and a surveyor). Until recently there were three lay persons, with one RIBA chartered member as a non voting expert advisor.

The architect member will be informed of the allegations which gave the appraisal team a cause for concern and the member is expected to attend the hearing. The member may bring a solicitor or other advocate or friend to the hearing. The hearing panel may invite the complainants and other witnesses to the hearing but in my experience this would be unusual. The hearing process is not an adversarial exercise.

The hearing panel conducts a structured approach to determining the sanction. They determine the seriousness of the complaint, the preliminary sanction and possibly adjust for any aggravating or mitigating factors, culpability – intention, reckless knowledge or negligence, and the members personal circumstances. The sanction is then determined which could be: no action, caution, public reprimand, suspension or expulsion.

A common problem in my experience has been the way in which the complaint has been handled in the first place by the architect. This is sometimes due to the lack of a proper complaints procedure. It is a professional requirement for effective procedures to be in place for dealing promptly and appropriately with disputes or complaints. The professional often needs to sit back and try to be objective about the complaint and it is suggested that consultation with another member of the practice should take place at an early stage. It is not uncommon for there to have been heated exchange of emails and telephone calls between the complainant and the professional. This should not happen if the complaint is dealt with correctly.

The professional should remember that even if he considers the complaint to be unjustified and even if the client is withholding money for services, he has an obligation to act in a professional manner and to keep in mind the values of his professional body.

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