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The Baden Hellard judgment - reactions

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RIBA Councillor Maurice McCarthy was one of the first members of the profession to advocate abolition of Arcuk. He removed his name from the Register at the end of 1991. Now a director of Quasar Management, he provides interim management and project management services. Here he responds to ARB v R Baden Hellard .

Although the prosecution was brought under the Registration Acts 1931 to 1969, even the Architects Act 1997 does not overcome the absurdity of trying to purloin a word from the English language. There are many anomalies. It remains lawful for unregistered institute members to use the affix RIBA and the title 'chartered architect' if they are either retired or unemployed. Such members are beyond the reach of the Act because they are not practising or carrying on business. The potentially misleading title 'architectural consultant' still appears to escape sanction - otherwise a number of well-known 'architectural correspondents' would be in for a shock. Only this week the Sunday Times carried an advertisement from Computer Sciences Corporation for 'business architects', 'technical architects', and 'application architects' at salaries of £90,000. Barely a week goes by without some prestigious organisation advertising for 'systems architects'. How can use of the word 'architect' in advertisements such as these be challenged?

Protection of title, such as it is, has never applied to the 5000-plus RIBA members outside the UK. Unregistered institute members with offices in Dublin and Belfast can lawfully use the affix RIBA on one office letterhead but not the other. The distance between these cities is 150km, but the same anomaly applies to Lifford and Strabane which are little more than a kilometre either side of the border. But what is distance in the electronic age? Suppose you choose to live in the South of France and specialise in computer-generated walk-throughs e-mailed to your British clients. Is it not odd that you could use your affix in France in connection with your business but would have to yield it up at the port of entry if ever you returned to these shores - even on holiday? Such anomalies will increasingly cause the profession to question the very existence of the ARB. Already there have been cogent pleas for either protection of function or abolition.

The profession failed to achieve its objective of protection of function in the early 1920s and early 1930s. Since then the tide of public opinion has made the objective ever more remote. There are no public safety considerations. The raft of planning, building, and health and safety legislation protects the public. The profession would look foolish indeed if it attempted to mount a campaign for protection of function. We have to accept that it will never be.

Would abolition be so bad? The Registration Acts date from 1931, but no lesser degree of protection of title is afforded by later legislation. Improper use of the description 'qualified architect' or the title 'chartered architect' is fraudulent under the Misrepresentation Act 1967, and can be subject to an action for damages for the tort of deceit. Those laying false claim to the title 'architect' can be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act at no cost to the profession.

The sole justification for the ARB is the claim that it protects the consumer. In fact, it merely provides post-event retribution. The ARB cannot offer or provide any recompense to an aggrieved client who demonstrates loss. Nor can it promote conditions of appointment designed for consumer protection.

The prospect of achieving abolition would be high if the profession were prepared to radically rethink the deal it offers to the consumer. Regrettably, the RIBA's Small Works Edition is written by architects for architects and is consumer-hostile.

Small practices have for years resisted the contractual obligations of 'diligence', 'time-scale', and 'progress reports' - ironically, now all mandatory requirements under the new ARB Code of Professional Conduct and Practice. There is an opportunity to devise a customer-focused document endorsed by the Consumer's Association and backed by a simple compensation scheme. Unlike mere registration or PII, the ability to offer that reassurance to 'once-in-a-lifetime' clients of small works would be a real marketing benefit!

Whether last Friday's judgment is right or wrong as a matter of law, it does no credit to a profession that prides itself on its libertarianism. Ron Baden Hellard should have your sympathy and support. More importantly, the profession should reform itself so that the ARB can be abolished.

Otherwise, the price to be paid for an outdated concept of protectionism will be loss of status through abuse and ridicule.

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