Disciplinary complaints against architects – a growing trend?

Figures recently obtained from RIBA demonstrate a continued year-on-year increase in the amount of complaints being made against architects, although this does not necessarily translate to an increase in those complaints reaching a hearing or in sanctions being imposed.

In 2017, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) received 34 individual complaints. This increased to 43 in 2018, and 2019 is looking likely to be a record year for the number of complaints received. The decisions published by the Architects Registration Board (ARB), the independent regulator of all UK registered architects, also suggests a steady increase in the number of complaints to the ARB. This is consistent with the number of complaints which Kennedys are defending.

Reasons for the increase

The reasons for the increase in complaints is unclear but we would suggest that it is a combination of:

Access to justice issues

Higher court fees and a reduction in the availability of ‘no win no fee’ arrangements may deter claimants from commencing legal proceedings. The disciplinary process before the ARB and RIBA is free and costs are not recoverable. Whilst neither the ARB or RIBA have the power to order an architect to pay compensation, claimants sometimes use the process to ‘test the waters’ before deciding whether to bring civil proceedings which can be expensive and risky from a costs point of view. Whilst the decision by the ARB and/or RIBA is not binding on any civil claim, it deserves respect and it can be persuasive. A favourable decision by the ARB and/or RIBA can also sometimes pave the way for a settlement in a civil claim.

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 recent launch of RIBA’s new website, and the new Code of Professional Conduct and the Code of Practice which are due to launch later this year, we expect the awareness of the regulatory regimes to increase further.

Early dismissal of frivolous claims

Whilst complaints are on the increase, the figures from RIBA show that there has been a decline in the number of cases which reach a public hearing. In 2017, 16 cases went to a hearing before RIBA, whilst in 2018 only seven cases reached that stage. On the basis of these figures, and of our experience in handling these types of complaints, RIBA appear to be taking a harder line and dismissing the more frivolous complaints at the earlier Appraisal stage. The same cannot be said for the ARB where the number of imposed sanctions increased by almost 50% from 2017 to 2018, with eight architects being suspended or erased from the register last year alone.

Comment

As ever, the message to architects is to notify their brokers/insurers as soon as a complaint is received and to obtain early legal advice. While there are always commercial considerations to take into account, taking on the ARB and/or RIBA without input from insurers/brokers and solicitors is extremely risky, especially given the potentially devastating consequences.

In terms of risk avoidance, architects should familiarise themselves with, and adhere to, the Architect’s Code of Conduct and, if they are members of RIBA, the Code of Professional Conduct and the Code of Practice. They should ensure that:

  • Appropriate professional indemnity insurance is in place
  • Written terms of engagement are issued to the client at the outset
  • Written records are kept of client meetings and conversations
  • A written procedure for prompt and courteous handling of complaints is in place and followed.

Where a complaint is made, the architect should be willing to engage in early alternative methods of dispute, such a mediation, which may serve to prevent the complaint reaching the ARB and/or RIBA.