Mr John Wratten
THE ARCHITECTS REGISTRATION BOARD
PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT COMMITTEE
In the matter of
Mr John Wratten [038666I]
Held as a video conference
On 14 – 16 September 2020
Julian Weinberg (Chair)
Judy Carr (PCC Architect Member)
Steve Neale (PCC Lay Member)
In this case, the ARB is represented by Kathryn Sheridan of Kingsley Napley LLP.
Mr Wratten has attended this hearing and is legally represented by Mr Richard Beaty of Kennedys Law LLP.
|The Professional Conduct Committee (“PCC”) found Mr Wratten guilty of unacceptable professional conduct (“UPC”) in that he:
and that by doing so, he acted in breach of Standards and 9.2 and 9.5 of the Architects Code: Standards of Conduct and Practice 2017 (“the Code”).
The sanction imposed is a Penalty Order of £500.
Charge and allegations:
1) In this case, ARB is represented by Ms Kathryn Sheridan. Mr John Wratten (“The Respondent”) has attended this hearing and is represented by Mr Richard Beaty of Counsel, briefed by Kennedys Law LLP. Mr Wratten faces a charge of Unacceptable Professional Conduct (“UPC”) based on three allegations in relation to breaches of the Architects Code: Standards of Conduct and Practice 2017 (“the Code”). It is alleged that:
1) The Respondent did not provide clear and/or adequate terms of engagement to the Complainant contrary to standard 4.4 of the Architects Code;
2) The Respondent did not deal with a complaint about their professional work appropriately.
3) The Respondent sent a letter to the Complainants dated 18 March 2020 which was inappropriate in that he sought to persuade and/or intimidate the Complainants into withdrawing their complaint to the ARB.
2) This matter relates to a complaint made by LS and SS (“the Complainants”) to the ARB in April 2019 about the Respondent. It is alleged that at the time the Complainants instructed the Respondent, he was the owner of his own architectural practice, John Wratten Associates Ltd (“John Wratten Associates”).
3) The Complainants initially contacted the Respondent in September 2017 in relation to a project at their property. The Respondent sent terms of engagement but the Complainants decided not to go ahead with the Respondent with that particular project. However, in February 2018, the Complainants contacted the Respondent again in relation to a different, and more limited, project at their home in relation to the construction of a porch and the creation of a utility room and a wet room.
4) The Respondent emailed the Complainants sketch designs and stated that he had passed the matter on to “Head Office”. He referred the Complainants to a YouTube video entitled “Lewis Visuals Introduction & Lewis Visuals 5 Work Stages”.
5) The Complainants allege that in respect of this new project, they did not receive written terms of engagement. It is alleged that, notwithstanding being informed initially about a proposed merger between the Respondent and Lewis Visuals Ltd (“Lewis Visuals”), the Respondent would undertake the initial work on the project and that, even though the project would be passed to Lewis Visuals, the Respondent would remain in the background and would oversee the project. It is alleged that the Respondent did not provide the Complainants with compliant terms of engagement, which should have included confirming who would be responsible for the work before and after merger.
6) In March 2018, the Complainants contacted the Respondent to clarify the position on fees, having previously been informed that the fees would be £2500, yet Lewis Visuals had quoted £3000.
7) In November 2018, the appointed contractor raised concerns with the Complainants about the drawings for the project which did not leave adequate headroom for the staircase to be constructed. When the Complainants contacted Lewis Visuals, they were informed in an email dated 13 December 2018 that the Respondent no longer worked for them. When the Complainants contacted the Respondent, they were told that he parted company with Lewis Visuals in May 2018. The Complainants were not aware that that was the case prior to December 2018.
8) The Complainants made complaints to both the Respondent and Lewis Visuals. The Respondent acknowledged receipt of this letter, but it is alleged that he did not provide any further response.
9) In March 2020, the Complainants contacted ARB’s solicitors to inform them that they had received a letter from the Respondent dated 18 March 2020. A copy of that letter had also been provided by the Respondent to ARB.
10) That letter set out the time the Respondent had spent responding to ARB’s investigation and the cost implications for him in terms of insurance and legal expenses. He stated that the Complainants had caused him anxiety by making the complaint. He further suggested to the Complainants “that before the end of this current month, March 2020, you ensure that your complaint against me personally be withdrawn from the ARB and that you have furnished them with an unequivocal statement outlining that you have never appointed nor instructed me to act as architect on your behalf”. He stated that he had no wish to take the matter further but that he may have to “take steps”. He concluded the letter by stating that the Complainants should withdraw their complaint unequivocally in which case, they would hear nothing further about the matter. It is alleged that the Respondent’s letter was threatening and intimidating.
11) In his response to ARB, the Respondent stated that he took the advantage of an “escape clause” in his agreement with Lewis Visuals and parted company in May 2018. He stated that the Complainants were fully aware of the Respondent’s merger with Lewis Visuals. In his subsequent representations of 14 May 2020, he stated that he was not engaged or appointed by the Complainants. He stated that he did not provide any architectural services to the Complainants prior to 1 March 2018, the date in which his practice merged with Lewis Visuals. It is his case that the Complainants’ contractual relationship for the provision of architectural service was with Lewis Visuals and not with him.
12) Particular 1 is denied. Particulars 2 and 3 are admitted. UPC is admitted in respect of the particular 3. It is denied that if Particular 1 is found proved, it is sufficiently serious to amount to UPC. It is denied that the admitted facts of Particular 2 are sufficiently serious to amount to UPC.
13) In reaching its decisions, the Committee has carefully considered the documentary evidence presented to it in the Report of ARB’s Solicitor and the 159 pages of documents exhibited to it, which include the Respondent’s detailed written representations to ARB. The Respondent has also provided a detailed statement together with supporting exhibits together with a defence document.
14) The Committee has accepted the legal advice given by the Legally Qualified Chair which is a matter of record. It has had regard to the fact that the burden of proof is on ARB and that the civil standard applies, namely proof on the balance of probabilities. The Committee is mindful that the more serious the allegation, the more cogent should be the evidence to find it proved. Whether the conduct alleged amounts to UPC is a matter for the Committee’s independent judgment to which no burden or standard of proof applies.
Findings of facts:
15) The Committee finds the facts not proved for the following reasons:
16) In support of this particular, ARB alleges that the Complainants were clients of the Respondent’s practice, John Wratten Associates. It relies principally on the following facts:
a) That, without terms of engagement having been provided, the Respondent arranged for a survey to be undertaken;
b) The survey drawings had John Wratten Associates’ name on them; and
c) That he provided two sketch plans for consideration by the Complainants.
17) It is an agreed position between ARB and the Respondent that he visited the Complainants at their home address on approximately 8 February 2018 to discuss the proposal for the project. It is also agreed that at that meeting, the Respondent stated that his practice would be merging with Lewis Visuals as at 1 March 2018. Terms of engagement were sent by Lewis Visuals to the Complainants on 15 March 2018 and were signed by the Complainants approximately three weeks afterwards.
18) The Committee has had sight of the Respondent’s email, from John Wratten Associates to the Complainants dated 5 March 2018. In it, he states that “I am now writing to confirm that I had made arrangements for a survey to be conducted and will be carrying this out shortly. Meanwhile, I attach for your interest sketches of two ways forward one of which I believe will give the budget scheme you require, whilst the other will give you a slightly smaller shower room but with a much better hall which will also bring more daylight into the hall….”. He refers to passing the matter to his Head Office who would send a quotation for the work as it unfolds. The Respondent in his evidence referred to the sketch plans as “concept” drawings. The sketches were not drawn to scale, had no measurements on them and as such, were unsuitable for construction, building regulation or planning application purposes. The Committee accepts the Respondent’s evidence that their purpose was to the Complainants an idea of what might be possible and to give Lewis Visuals the basics of the proposed project on which to provide a fees quote and full terms of engagement which were sent to the Complainants ten days later.
19) The Complainant accepted that she and her husband had decided that they wanted to instruct the Respondent on this smaller project – they were attracted by the idea that he was a local and experienced architect with a good reputation and that they wanted him to be involved in and oversee the project knowing that his practice had merged. The Complainant accepted in evidence that whilst she and her husband had effectively made up their minds that they would instruct the Respondent unless his proposals were “horrendous”. The Committee concluded therefore that the final decision was made after they saw the Respondent’s sketch proposals by which time the Respondent was working with Lewis Visuals. The Committee rejects the Complainant’s initial evidence that she had no option other than to instruct the Respondent: she had chosen not to instruct the Respondent previously around November 2017, and she conceded in response to questions put to her by Mr Beaty, that that option was available to her.
20) The Committee accepts the Respondent’s evidence that the Complainants were keen to move the project along and Lewis Visuals had been unable to arrange a prompt survey. In an effort to facilitate that, he stated that he could arrange for a local surveyor to undertake a survey, even though Lewis Visuals had not provided terms of engagement to the Complainants. The Surveyor was initially funded by the Respondent who was reimbursed by Lewis Visuals. Had the Complainants not gone ahead with the project, the Respondent would have been out of pocket. At that stage, the Complainants were under no obligation to pay those fees. The Committee also notes that the Respondent neither charged for, nor was paid any fees directly from the Complainants as John Wratten Associates. The Committee accepts as credible the Respondent’s explanation for the insertion of his practice’s name on the survey plans, as it was he who had the connection with the surveyor, rather than Lewis Visuals and the Respondent had made direct contact with him.
21) The Respondent has consistently maintained that he was not instructed by the Complainants. In his email to ARB of 14 May 2020, he stated “for the fourth or fifth time that I was never engaged, appointed nor instructed in the matter of a porch for [the Complainants]…..At no time was my engagement or appointment discussed, nor did I discuss fees with [the Complainants]…..
22) Standard 4 of the 2017 Code states:
4.4 You are expected to ensure that before you undertake any professional work you have entered into a written agreement with the client which adequately covers:
- the contracting parties;
- the scope of the work:
- the fee or method of calculating it;
- who will be responsible for what;
- any constraints or limitations on the responsibilities of the parties;
- the provisions for suspension or termination of the agreement, including any legal rights of cancellation;
- a statement that you have adequate and appropriate insurance cover as specified by ARB;
- the existence of any Alternative Dispute Resolution schemes that the contract is subject to and how they might be accessed;
- that you have a complaints-handling procedure available on request;
- that you are registered with the Architects Registration Board and that you are subject to this Code.
23) In reaching its decision, the Committee has had regard to the following:
i) The sketch drawings provided by the Respondent with his email of 5 March 2018 were provided as part of a preliminary enquiry by the Complainants. Those sketches lacked measurements and were unsuitable for construction, building regulation or planning purposes. If the proposals were rejected by the Complainants, they were at liberty not to go ahead with instructing the Respondent to work on the project;
ii) John Wratten Associates neither invoiced for, nor was paid by the Complainants;
iii) In making arrangements for a surveyor to be instructed, the Committee accepts that he was trying to assist the Complainants in moving the project forward. The Complainants were under no contractual obligation at that stage to pay the surveyor’s fees had they decided not to go ahead with the project;
iv) The Complainants were aware that the Respondent’s practice was to be merged with Lewis Visuals and they had been directed to Lewis Visual’s detailed plan in order for them to make a final decision as to whether to proceed with them.
24) In the circumstances, the Committee does not find that the Respondent had been appointed by the Complainants. He had provided preliminary outline assistance to enable the Complainants to make an informed choice about their project. The Complainants subsequently appointed Lewis Visuals in the expectation that the Respondent would be overseeing the project.
25) As such, the Committee finds that the Respondent was under no obligation to provide terms of engagement on behalf of John Wratten Associates. As such, the Committee finds that he was not required to comply with, and did not breach Standard 4 of the 2017 Code.
26) By reason of the Respondent’s admission, the Committee finds the facts proved.
27) In a letter dated 10 May 2019, the Complainant wrote to the Respondent stating “I am writing to make a formal complaint against yourself and Lewis Visuals. I believe you have failed to provide me with a satisfactory service when overseeing the design and drawing of front door extension for our property while acting as contract administrator between Apr 2018 and Jan 2019”.
28) The Committee has had sight of an undated email from the Respondent to the Complainants in which he acknowledges receipt of the Complainant’s letter of 10 May 2019 and states in response: “I will, in accordance with the Architects Code, now respond to your complaint within a month, but ask that you take kind regard of the delay”.
29) It is accepted by the Respondent that he failed to respond to the complaint as required.
30) Standard 10 of the 2017 Code states:
10.2 Complaints should be handled courteously and promptly at every stage, and as far as practicable in accordance with the following time scales:
a) an acknowledgement within 10 working days from the receipt of a complaint; and
b) a response addressing the issues raised in the initial letter of complaint within 30 working days from its receipt.
31) In the circumstances, the Committee finds the allegation proved and that by doing so, the Respondent acted in breach of standard 10.2 of the Code.
32) By reason of the Respondent’s admission, the Committee finds the facts proved.
33) The Respondent accepts that the contents of his letter of 18 March 2020 to the Complainants, referred to at paragraph 10 above, was inappropriate and for which he apologised for the distress caused.
34) Standards 9.2 and 9.5 of the 2017 Code state:
9.2 You are expected to conduct yourself in a way which does not bring either yourself or the profession into disrepute…..
9.5 You should not enter into any agreement the terms of which would prevent any party from reporting an apparent breach of the Code to ARB.
35) In the circumstances, the Committee finds the allegation proved and that by doing so, the Respondent acted in breach of standards 9.2 and the spirit of standard 9.5 of the Code in seeking to prevent the Complainants pursuing a complaint to the ARB.
Finding on Unacceptable Professional Conduct:
36) Having found allegations 2 and 3 proved, the Committee went on to consider whether the Respondent’s conduct found proved amounts to UPC. UPC is defined in section 14(1)(a) of the Architects Act 1997 as conduct which falls short of the standard required of an architect.
37) Ms Sheridan submitted that the Respondent’s failure to respond substantively to the Complainants’ complaint is serious as a Complainant is entitled to a full response to concerns they raise. Failure to provide a response, she submitted, has the potential to diminish the public’s faith in the Respondent and the wider profession.
38) In relation to particular 3, she submitted that the Respondent’s failing was serious in that it is not for an Architect to seek to circumvent proceedings before his / her regulator through intimidation and inappropriate conduct.
The Respondent’s submissions
39) In respect of particular 2, Mr Beaty accepted that the Respondent failed to provide a response to the Complainants’ complaint and further accepted that that amounted to a breach of Standard 10.2 of the Code.
40) However he submitted that the Respondent’s conduct was not sufficiently serious for it to amount to UPC because:
i) The Complainants were not and had not been a client of the Respondent;
ii) The Complainants had raised a separate but identical complaint against Lewis Visuals;
iii) The implications of failing to respond to the complaint were not serious because any response would only have made a bare denial of liability and would have been of little assistance to the Complainants;
iv) The complaint related to matters that did not relate to the Respondent’s involvement in the project; and
v) At the time of the project, the Respondent had been an employee of Lewis Visuals and therefore it was they who had the principal responsibility to respond to the complaint.
41) In the circumstances, he submitted that whilst accepting that the Respondent should have responded to the complaint, and that it would have been courteous to have done so, his failure to do so was not sufficiently serious such that it could be considered ‘deplorable’ and therefore amount to UPC.
42) It is accepted on behalf of the Respondent that the facts found proved at particular 3 amounts to UPC.
Decision on UPC
43) In reaching its findings, the Committee has carefully considered all the evidence presented to it, all submissions made and has accepted the advice from the Legally Qualified Chair. The Committee recognises that not every shortcoming on the part of an Architect, nor failure to comply with the provisions of the Code, will necessarily result in a finding of UPC. However, a failure to follow the guidance of the Code, whether in one’s professional or private life, is a factor that will be taken into account should it be necessary to examine the conduct or competence of an Architect. The Committee reminds itself that a finding of UPC is a matter for its own judgment.
44) The Committee recognises that any failing should be serious. The Committee has borne in mind the case of Spencer v General Osteopathic Council  EWHC 3147 (Admin) and accepts that “mere negligence does not constitute misconduct” and that “a single negligent act or omission is less likely to cross the threshold of misconduct than multiple acts or omissions (The Queen on the Application of Dr Malcolm Noel Calhaem v General Medical Council  EWHC 2606 (Admin). Misconduct, which is akin to UPC, was defined in the case of Roylance v GMC  1 AC 311 as, “a word of general effect, involving some act or omission which falls short of what would be proper in the circumstances. The standard of propriety may often be found by reference to the rules and standards ordinarily required to be followed by a medical practitioner in the particular circumstances”. The Committee also recognises that any failing must be serious (Vranicki v Architects Registration Board  EWHC 506 Admin).
45) The Committee accepts Mr Beaty’s submission in relation to particular 2. The Respondent was under an obligation to respond to the complaint. He acknowledged that fact in his acknowledgement of it. The Committee noted that the Respondent had chosen not to respond because he had not given credence to the complaint and he did not feel that “it would serve any useful purpose to enter into correspondence”. However, the Respondent would have been aware from the letter of complaint dated 10 May 2019, that the complaint was also being made against Lewis Visuals. It raised matters of concern in relation to the drawings and contract administration which were not the Respondent’s responsibility. The Committee accepts the Respondent’s explanation that he anticipated that Lewis Visuals would respond to the complaint, not least because, and as the Committee has determined, the Complainants were not his clients, but were clients of Lewis Visuals. The Committee accepts that the Respondent’s failure to substantively respond to the complaint resulted from a misguided, but understandable belief and expectation, that Lewis Visuals would deal with the complaint and that he would therefore not need to.
46) The Committee also notes that the Respondent had not tried to conceal the complaint, referring to a potential complaint in his letter to the ARB dated 18 February 2019, approximately three months before the Complainants’ letter of complaint dated 10 May 2019.
47) In the particular highly unusual circumstances of this case, the Committee finds that, whilst the Respondent’s conduct represents a breach of Standard 10.2 of the Code, it is not sufficiently serious so as to amount to UPC.
48) So far as allegation 3 is concerned, making veiled threats to intimidate complainants with a view to frustrating that process represents a serious falling short of the standard of conduct expected of an Architect. The Respondent accepts that his letter was inappropriate and that his conduct fell below the standard expected of a registered Architect.
49) The Respondent’s conduct in relation to particular 3 reflects a serious failing on his part in relation to a member of the public. The Committee finds that the Respondent’s breaches of the Code are serious and adversely impact both on his reputation and on the architect’s profession generally.
50) As such, the Committee has concluded that the Respondent’s conduct amounts to unacceptable professional conduct, which finding the Committee so makes.
51) For the avoidance of doubt, the Committee makes no finding of UPC in relation to particular 2.
52) Mr Foxsmith, who represented the ARB for the sanction stage of this hearing, reminded the Committee to have regard to the ARB’s Sanctions Guidance.
53) Mr Beaty addressed the Committee in mitigation on the Respondent’s behalf. He submitted in mitigation that:
i) The Respondent had cooperated with the regulatory process;
ii) That the Respondent had admitted particular 3 at the outset and that it amounted to UPC;
iii) That the Respondent had not made any financial gain;
iv) That the likelihood of the Respondent’s UPC being repeated is very low;
v) That there are a number of supporting testimonials attesting to the Respondent’s character and professionalism;
vi) The Respondent contacted both ARB and RIBA for advice in advance of an anticipated complaint prior to the complaint being made against him;
vii) The Respondent had health issues at the time;
viii) That the Respondent has demonstrated insight into his failings. The Respondent recognises that he placed his own interests before that of the Complainants and he has apologised for his actions; and
ix) That this was an isolated and out of character incident in a 48 year unblemished career.
54) In conclusion, he submitted that a lenient sanction should be imposed for what was a highly regrettable mistake which the respondent profoundly regrets, at the end of a long and distinguished career.
55) The Committee then considered whether to impose a sanction and, if so, which one. The Committee has had regard to the public interest, which includes the need to protect the public, to maintain confidence in the profession and ARB, and to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour. The Committee has carefully considered all the evidence and submissions made during the course of this hearing. It has heard and accepted the advice of the Legally Qualified Chair. It has borne in mind that the purpose of imposing a sanction is not to be punitive although it may have a punitive effect. It has taken into account the Respondent’s interests, the Sanctions Guidance and the need to act proportionately. It has taken into account any aggravating and mitigating factors in this case. The Committee has exercised its own independent judgement.
56) The Committee has identified the following aggravating factors:
i) The Respondent’s actions were intimidating and a deliberate attempt to undermine the complaints and regulatory process. The Committee considered this to be a particularly serious aggravating factor;
ii) The Respondent’s actions caused the Complainants significant distress.
57) The Committee agrees with the mitigating factors identified by Mr Beaty. The Committee has also had regard to the positive testimonials supplied which attest to his good character and professionalism.
58) In the circumstances, the Committee concluded that the risk of the Respondent repeating his UPC was very low.
59) The Committee notes that the matters found proved are serious to the extent that Mr Wratten’s failings diminish both his reputation, and that of the profession generally for the reasons set out in its determination on UPC. The Committee therefore concluded that the Respondent’s conduct was sufficiently serious for it to require the imposition of a sanction and has considered them in ascending order of severity.
60) The Committee first considered whether to impose a reprimand. The Committee recognises the Respondent’s insight into his UPC, his expression of remorse, his good previous disciplinary history and the low risk of his UPC being repeated. However, the Committee considered that such a sanction would not be appropriate or proportionate as it considered the Respondent’s UPC to be too serious for a reprimand given the aggravating factors identified. The Respondent’s deliberate attempt to circumvent the regulatory process undermines the confidence that the public can have that they have effective recourse to an architect’s regulator in the event that it should be necessary.
61) The Committee then considered whether to impose a penalty order and concluded that such a sanction was appropriate and proportionate.
62) The Committee therefore imposes a £500 penalty order which the committee considers to be an appropriate and proportionate sum to impose given the seriousness of the UPC found proved having considered all the aggravating and mitigating factors. That sum must be paid within 28 days. Failure to pay that sum within that timeframe may lead to the order being replaced with a suspension or erasure order.
63) The Committee considered whether to impose a suspension order, but given the suitability of a penalty order, the Committee concluded that such a sanction would be unduly punitive.
64) That concludes this determination.