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We all pay for inadequacies in the education system

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Few people realise the close interrelationship between those responsible for drafting the RIBA's various standard forms of agreement documents (SFA's), the courts, and the professional indemnity (PI) insurance companies.

Let me explain. When an architect is brought before a court of law to face allegations of negligence or incompetence (and few people including those in charge of discipline at the Architects Registration Board distinguish between these charges), two questions will inevitably go to the heart of the issues.

First, what did the architect do that they should not have done? For example, issue a practical completion certificate without having inspected the work.

Second, what did they not do that they should have done? For example, fail to comply with listed buildings legislation.

Likewise, when complaints relating to competence are referred to the ARB, often at the conclusion of the processes of litigation in the civil courts, similar questions will be addressed when determining the appropriate action to take against an individual architect.

But what is the benchmark against which performance is measured? Well, certainly case law can assist the courts (although apparently not the ARB because its previous registrar destroyed all past case files from ARCUK days). Then there is the opinion of the expert witness who can advise the court with respect to what a reasonably competent architect should have (or should not have) done in such circumstances. And reference can, of course, be made to the RIBA Job Book (now in its seventh edition), but the weaknesses here are twofold: first, this publication does not form part of the contract between architect and client; and second, it is no longer compatible with the latest SFAs!

So the main point of reference in assessing an architect's performance is the letter or SFA under which the appointment is made. Here, the courts and the ARB can establish the scope of the service commissioned (that is full or partial basic services, 'other' services and so on). Furthermore, the duties under each work stage are clearly set out in the SFAs, although I remain critical of these documents for reasons outlined previously (AJ 20.4.00 and 27.4.00).

So, it quickly becomes apparent that the extent of the PI insurer's liabilities are principally determined by the RIBA's SFA publications which define the scope of services to be provided. Likewise, the ARB relies on these documents in determining what could reasonably have been expected of any architect against whom a complaint is made.

But if architects are unable to provide services in accordance with the obligations that can be expected under the SFAs, then the PIcompanies are, of course, exposed to risk.

This, then, introduces a further and crucial element into the equation: are schools of architecture preparing graduates properly, in terms of both the scope and the quality of service that will be defined as appropriate by the courts against the duties set out in the various SFAs?

The schools may not welcome such scrutiny but this is an important issue: those graduates from Part 2 courses who decide to press on and sit professional practice exams quite reasonably expect that their education will have prepared them appropriately: where they have studied conscientiously, they anticipate early success in their Part 3 exams, and they look forward to being able to perform competently in practice.

But when things go wrong and architects are successfully sued, it is pay-out day for the insurers. And as a consequence, of course, PI premiums go up for the rest of us.

This is just another reason why it is in the interest of our profession that the education provided for those who wish to enter practice as architects - by far the majority of students - will properly prepare them to deal with the professional obligations that they will have to meet. Apart from competently serving the consumer, and maintaining the reputation of our profession, it is crucial that the level of successful PI claims is kept to the minimum - otherwise we all pay through constantly escalating PI premiums.

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