Veterinary medicine is more then a science; it’s an art. Imagine having a deep love of animals, living and dying with your patients, and trying to provide the correct diagnosis and meaningful treatment to a patient who cannot provide meaningful feedback. Lets not forget to add the pet owner’s emotions, demands, and finances into the mix. Vets have a tough job and it takes a special type of person who would want to do it, especially considering the surprisingly low pay, long hours, and massive student debt.
Despite this, the regulatory body that regulates and disciplines vets does so not for the benefit of its members, but rather for the public interest.
In Ontario, the regulatory body is the College of Veterinarians of Ontario. The College licenses approximately 4,500 veterinarians and accredits over 2,100 veterinary facilities in Ontario.
The guiding legislation is the Veterinarians Act and the Act gives the College the authority to establish regulations, by-laws, and minimum practice standards that all vets and vet facilities must comply with.
The following are examples from the College’s website:
1. Consent: Informed client consent is required for treatment.
2. Privacy and Medical Records: Veterinarians can only provide information to you or someone you authorize to represent you. You must consent to the release of your information, unless it is required or allowed by law.
3. Professional Conduct: The public, including clients, have the right to file a complaint with the College if they have concerns about the care provided by a veterinarian or the actions or conduct of a veterinarian.
4. Licensure: The College is responsible for ensuring that applicants have met the educational requirements and standards of qualification to become licensed to practise veterinary medicine in Ontario.
5. Accreditation: Veterinarians must practise from a professional environment which meets the standards to be granted a Certificate of Accreditation.
6. Quality Practice: The College’s Quality Practice program promotes continuing competence and continuing quality improvement among licensed veterinarians.
When a complaint is made against a vet by a client, another vet, the college, or pretty much anyone with a professional (or sometimes not so professional) grievance, the complaint will be investigated by the complaints committee as mandated by the Veterinarian’s Act.
Section 24(1) of the Act States:
24. (1) The Complaints Committee shall consider and investigate complaints made by members of the public or members of the College regarding the conduct of a member or former member of the College, but no action shall be taken by the Committee under subsection (2) unless,
a) a written complaint has been filed with the Registrar and the member or former member whose conduct is being investigated has been notified of the complaint and given at least two weeks in which to submit in writing to the Committee any explanations or representations the member or former member may wish to make concerning the matter; and
b) the Committee has examined or has made every reasonable effort to examine all records and other documents relating to the complaint.
It is important to remember that the College regulates its members for the public interest. If a vet receives notification of a complaint and is given opportunity to respond, that response is not confidential and can (and likely will) be used against that vet in the course of the investigation and at any disciplinary hearings that might arise. A vet should never lie in their response and there is actually no requirement that a response be given.
If the Complaints Committee considers the complaint and decides that further investigation is warranted, an investigator may be appointed.
Section 36. (1) states that where the Registrar believes on reasonable ground that a member or former member of the College has committed an act of professional misconduct or serious neglect or that there is cause to refuse to issue or renew or to suspend or revoke a certificate of accreditation, with approval of the Executive Committee, an investigator can be appointed to investigate the alleged misconduct.
Section 36. (2) goes on to define an investigator’s power. Specifically, upon production of his or her appointment an investigator may enter at any reasonable time the business premises of the member or former member under investigation, make reasonable inquiries of any person, and examine documents and things relevant to the subject-matter of the investigation.
Notice, that the language used is very broad. Reasonable grounds, reasonable inquiries, examine documents and things relevant to the subject-matter. The use of broad language is not uncommon in the law, but the effect is that if the College is investigating a vet or their office for malpractice and an investigator has been appointed, the vet has little recourse to prevent the investigator from entering the premises and coming into contact with information that is often completely irrelevant to the investigation. The questions “what is reasonable” and “what is relevant” are generally ones that get dealt with through the course of litigation.
After assessing all the information the investigator has collected, the College will determine whether they would like to proceed with a disciplinary hearing. There is no rule with respect to the length of hearings. Hearings often range from 1-3 days but longer hearings have been known to take place (10-15 days). The hearing is a trial and takes place in front of a panel made up of veterinarians and at least one community member. A lawyer is also present at a hearing to assist the panel given that the panel does not have legal expertise. However, this lawyer must remain unbiased and as a result, cannot provide you with legal advice of any kind.
The panel is the trier of fact, this means that they hear the College’s case and they hear the vet’s case and after hearing both sides of the story they decide what the facts are, whether there has been malpractice, and what the punishment should be.
Often vets retain a lawyer for the trial part of this difficult process but try to handle the initial response and investigation on their own. Often, this is because they feel that they haven’t done anything wrong and that the truth will come out. However, the need for consulting a lawyer even at the earliest stages cannot be stressed enough. A lawyer who has experience in veterinary discipline and administrative law will be able to do more then represent you at trial. A lawyer will inform you of your rights, assess your situation, and determine what if any response you should provide the College to answer the complaint. A lawyer will also liaise between you and the College during the investigatory phase hopefully minimizing your exposure and at least to some extent minimizing the jeopardy to your license and practice.
Robert Karrass is the Principal at Karrass Law and specializes in the areas of criminal law, administrative/regulatory law, and appeals