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ARB set to sharpen teeth with new penalties list. . .

The Architects Registration Board is considering the introduction of a raft of minor punishments for architects whose misdemeanours are currently overlooked by its disciplinary system.

The move could mean warning letters, enforced continuous professional development study, and a points system where three complaints against an architect would result in a professional conduct committee hearing, all on top of the ARB's existing powers to fine or expel architects from its register.

Examples of offences which could fall under the new powers include failure to record in writing the terms and scope of engagement with a client, failure to set up a building contract and administer it properly, and failure to obtain or to breach a statutory consent for which the architect is responsible.

Plans for the wrist-slapping measures follow concern from consumers that the ARB is not acting on enough of their complaints, as well as warnings from the ARB's investigations committee that guilty architects are getting off free because of the system.

'The limits of the present system mean that many consumers are not being satisfied by our decisions, ' said investigation committee chairman Connie Higgins. 'Many cases terminate early when we know that a consumer has a grievance.We have a system of either hang them or let them go.'

Out of 800 complaints made each year, about 20 are investigated because the remainder are either deemed too weak or do not fit the current two-charge system of unacceptable professional conduct and serious professional incompetence.

But if the broader range of punishments are introduced, Higgins predicts that the number of cases which will be considered seriously each year would rise to about 200, with the vast majority decided before going as far as a costly PCC hearing.

ARB chairwoman Barbara Kelly said that the move would probably require changes in regulations under the Architects Act and the ARB would consult its lawyers on how to do this.

The plans were presented as improving the ARB's role as consumer protector, but Salisbury architect Sean O'Mahony, who was cleared of four out of five charges against him at a PCC last September, warned they could help litigious clients build up cases against architects: 'There are times when the consumer isn't an innocent but is someone using the system, perhaps to form a platform for future litigation. If the ARB makes a minor punishment this could be used by a litigious client.

The investigation by the ARB needs to be very thorough if this is not to become a disaster for architects.' O'Mahony welcomed the idea on the whole, however, and said it would save time and money in dealing with minor offences.

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