Mr Martin Raymond Belt - Architects Registration Board
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Mr Martin Raymond Belt

THE ARCHITECTS REGISTRATION BOARD

PROFESSIONAL CONDUCT COMMITTEE

In the matter of

Mr Martin Raymond Belt (080160G)

Held on 9 – 10 February 2022

Via video conference 

———-

Present

Emma Boothroyd (Chair)

David Kann (PCC Architect Member)

Jules Griffiths (PCC Lay Member)

———–

In this case, ARB is represented by Ms Kathryn Sheridan of Kingsley Napley LLP.

Mr Martin Belt has attended this hearing but is not legally represented.

The Professional Conduct Committee (“PCC”) found Mr Martin Belt guilty of 

1) Unacceptable Professional Conduct (“UPC”) in that:

    1. The Respondent did not provide adequate terms of engagement to the Complainant, contrary to Standard 4.4 of the Architects Code;
    2. The Respondent did not communicate adequately with his client in that he did not keep his client informed about the progress of the planning application submission;
    3. The Respondent failed to deal adequately with a complaint, contrary to Standard 10 of the Architects Code. 

2) The Respondent has been convicted of a criminal offence other than an offence which has no material relevance to his fitness to practise as an Architect in that he was convicted on 15 October 2020 of possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence.

and that by doing so, he acted in breach of Standards 1, 4, 9 and 10 of the Architects Code: Standards of Conduct and Practice 2017 (“the Code”).

The sanction imposed is a Suspension of 12 months.

 

Allegations

  1. Mr Belt (the “Respondent”) faces the following allegations:
    1) He is guilty of Unacceptable Professional Conduct (‘UPC’) in that:

    a) The Respondent did not provide adequate terms of engagement to the Complainant, contrary to Standard 4.4 of the Architects Code;

    b) The Respondent did not communicate adequately with his client in that he did not keep his client informed about the progress of the planning application submission;

    c) The Respondent failed to deal adequately with a complaint, contrary to Standard 10 of the Architects Code.

    2) The Respondent has been convicted of a criminal offence other than an offence which has no material relevance to his fitness to practise as an Architect in that he was convicted on 15 October 2020 of possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear of violence. 

  1. At the outset of the hearing the Respondent admitted the factual particulars set out at Particular 1 in their entirety and accepted that these amounted to UPC. This, however, remains a matter for the Committee’s professional judgement.
  1. ARB brings allegation 2 pursuant to the Professional Conduct Committee’s jurisdiction to make a disciplinary order under Section 15(1)(b) of the Architects Act 1997 (“the Act”). Such an order can be made where an architect has been convicted of a criminal offence “other than an offence which has no material relevance to the architect’s fitness to practise”. This Committee recognises that this is a matter for the Committee’s discretion and that it is open to this Committee to make no order.
  1. At the outset of the proceedings the Respondent accepted the fact of the conviction but did not accept that it had any material relevance to his fitness to practise as an architect. He further contended that he did not accept the factual basis of the conviction and maintained that he was not guilty of the offence and had not made any threats.

Background to UPC allegation

  1. The Respondent is a registered architect and owns his own practice Martin Belt Architects. 
  1. The Complainant owned a property in Yorkshire which has subsidence and is unable to be mortgaged. The Complainant was considering demolishing the property and redeveloping the site. The Complainant instructed the Respondent in late 2019 to conduct a feasibility study and produce plans for submission to the Local Authority for planning permission. 
  1. In April 2020 the Complainant approved the application and asked the Respondent to submit it to the Local Authority. The Complainant paid the Respondent the planning application fees of £970 which were paid to the Local Authority when the application was submitted. Thereafter, the Complainant was unable to reach the Respondent by phone or email to find out the progress of the application. In July 2020 the Complainant made a complaint to ARB. 
  1. ARB wrote to the Respondent on 28 July 2020 and reminded him of his obligations under the Code. The letter requested that the Respondent deal with the complaint and respond to the Complainant as soon as possible. The Complainant sent a further email to the Respondent in August 2020 but did not receive a response.
  1. In December 2020 the Complainant was contacted by the Respondent’s daughter who explained that the Respondent was unwell and not working. The Complainant took steps to ascertain what had happened with the planning application. The Complainant contacted the Local Authority who confirmed that the planning application had been submitted but was returned as invalid as the Respondent had not provided requested information. The planning fee had also been returned directly to the Respondent. 

Background to the conviction allegation

  1. On the 22 May 2019 the Respondent was involved in a confrontation with a door-to-door salesman outside his property. The Respondent came out of his property with an imitation handgun and threatened to shoot the man if he came back. On the 15 October 2020 the Respondent was convicted following a jury trial of possession of a firearm with intent to cause fear or violence. He was sentenced on the 27 November 2020 to 18 months imprisonment and ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £140. An order was made for forfeiture and destruction of the weapon used in the incident. The Respondent was released from custody in August 2021 and remains on license until May 2022.

Decision on Allegation 1 – admitted and found proved

  1. In reaching its findings, the Committee has carefully considered the documentary evidence presented to it in the Reports of ARB’s Solicitor together with the documents exhibited to them, including the Respondent’s correspondence with ARB. It has taken account of the oral evidence of the Respondent and the Complainant and the admissions made.
  1. It is clear from the documents before the Committee that the terms of business sent to the Complainant were inadequate and did not comply with the requirements of Standard 4.4 of the Architects Code 2017. The Respondent accepted in his evidence that he had copied these terms from another Architect and had taken no steps to check them against the requirements of the Code. There is no information within the terms relating to the scope of work, fees or the method of calculating fees. There was no information about complaints handling, insurance cover or any constraints or limitations of the responsibilities of any parties. 
  1. Similarly, the Respondent accepted in his evidence that he took no steps to update the Complainant about the planning application and did not tell him that queries had been raised by the Local Authority. The Respondent explained that the Local Authority had required a floorplan and would not accept photographs which required him to attend at the property during the national lockdown. This information was not communicated to the Complainant and the Respondent did not respond to any communication requesting an update.
  1. When the Complainant raised a formal complaint the Respondent did not reply and did not take any steps to deal with the complaint even after ARB requested he deal with the matter. The Committee considers that it is an obvious fact that the Respondent did not update the Complainant about the Planning Application or deal with his complaint.    

Decision on UPC

  1. Having found the facts of Particulars 1 proved the Committee went on to consider whether this amounted to UPC. UPC is defined as conduct which falls short of the standard required of a registered person. The Committee had regard to the relevant standards within the Code.

Standard 4.4 of the Code states:

“You are expected to ensure that before you undertake any professional work you have entered into a written agreement with your 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”

Standard 6.3 states,

“You are expected to keep your client informed of the progress of work you undertake on their behalf and of any issue which may significantly affect its quality or cost.” 

Standard 10.2 states, 

“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.”

 

  1. By reason of the facts found proved, the Committee finds that the Respondent acted in breach of Standards 4.4, 6.3 and 10.2 of the Code for the following reasons. The Committee finds that the contract did not comply with the requirements of Standard 4.4 and the Respondent failed to enter into an adequate written agreement with the Complainant. The Respondent failed to adequately set out within his terms the matters required by the Code. 
  1. The Committee considers the Respondent’s failure to reply substantively or appropriately to the Complainant’s complaint within the required timescales is a breach of standard 10.2.
  1. In reaching its findings on UPC, the Committee has carefully considered all the evidence presented to it, all submissions made and has accepted the advice from the 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. 
  1. The Committee has considered the authority of Spencer v General Osteopathic Council [2012] EWHC 3147 (Admin). It has borne in mind in reaching its decision that for a finding of unacceptable professional conduct to be made, “a degree of moral blameworthiness on the part of the registrant likely to convey a degree of opprobrium to the ordinary intelligent citizen” was required. Any failing should be serious. The Committee 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…. a single instance of negligent treatment unless very serious indeed, would be unlikely to constitute deficient professional performance”. 
  1. The consequences for the Complainant were extremely frustrating as he was completely in the dark about what was happening with the planning application. He was forced to chase the Respondent and then take time to unravel what had happened directly with the Local Authority. He had paid the Respondent fees of £1,600 and the planning application fee and he is out of pocket. The Respondent has confirmed that the planning fee was returned to him but that this has been spent on household expenses during the period when he was in prison. The Committee was provided with an email sent from the Respondent to the Complainant on the evening before this hearing which made an offer to repay the planning fee and a proportion of the Respondent’s fees in instalments.
  1. The Committee considered that the Respondent’s actions in failing to respond to the Complainant and to properly address the Complainant’s queries together with his failure to substantively engage with and respond to his complaint and concerns despite the intervention of ARB were serious failings that was likely to convey a degree of opprobrium.   
  1. Notwithstanding the Respondent’s personal difficulties at that time the Committee considers he should have taken steps to deal with his professional responsibilities.
  1. The Committee finds that both individually and collectively, the Respondent’s failings are serious and adversely impact both on the reputation of the architect and the profession generally. The Respondent’s failings in dealing with his client and his complaint represents conduct falling substantially below the standard expected of a registered architect. Such failings can quite properly be categorised as UPC. 
  1. The Committee therefore finds that the Respondent’s conduct does amount to unacceptable professional conduct. 

Decision on Allegation 2

  1. In reaching its findings, the Committee has carefully considered the documentary evidence presented to it in the Reports of ARB’s Solicitor together with the documents exhibited to them, including the Respondent’s correspondence with ARB. It has taken account of the oral evidence of the Respondent. The Committee has carefully considered the sentencing remarks for the conviction.
  1. The Committee finds the conviction proved by virtue of the Respondent’s admission and also having had sight of the memorandum of conviction. The Respondent substantially disputes the factual matrix of the conviction and maintains that the event did not happen in the way alleged.
  1. The Committee took into account the Respondent’s representations but applied the principles as set out in the cases of Kirk v The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons 2004 WLUK 267 and GMC V Spackman [1943] AC 627 which were recently approved in the case of Wray v GOC [2020] EWHC 3409 which set out as follows:

“The authorities have consistently held that where statutory provision is made for disciplinary bodies to attach professional consequences to a criminal conviction, the effect of the statute has been to preclude the practitioner from denying the truth of any facts necessarily implied in the conviction. In such cases, the decision of the disciplinary body is properly based on the fact of the conviction, and the practitioner cannot go behind it and endeavour to show he was innocent of the charge and should have been acquitted. …Additional evidence about the underlying facts on which the conviction is based may be adduced and relied on in relation to the disciplinary consequences provided the facts are not inconsistent with the finding that the practitioner was guilty of the offence. What the practitioner cannot do is to re-litigate the conviction as to the facts.”

  1. The Committee then went on to consider whether the conviction was for a matter other than for an offence which has no material relevance to the Respondent’s fitness to practise. This is a matter for the Committee’s judgment. In doing so, it has taken into account all the evidence and the submissions of Ms Sheridan and the representations of the Respondent. The Committee was mindful that the Respondent has given live evidence but also took into account that he was not represented at these proceedings. Ms Sheridan submitted that the convictions met the threshold under Section 15(1)(b) of the Architects Act.
  1. She submitted that the Respondent’s convictions are material as they call into question his fitness to practise because of the nature and seriousness of offending which involved an imitation firearm and caused a member of the public to fear for his life. Ms Sheridan submitted that the public would be shocked at the Respondent’s behaviour which took place in front of the Respondent’s 15-year-old daughter in a residential area. Ms Sheridan submitted that this therefore brings the profession into disrepute. She reminded the Committee that the Respondent’s actions merited an immediate custodial sentence of eighteen months which is indicative of its seriousness. 
  1. The Respondent in essence denied that the convictions are materially relevant to his fitness to practise. He stated during his evidence that the events did not happen in the way alleged and he did not make any threats. The Respondent explained how he ended up in the street with a de-activated “BB” gun and stated that this was in his rear pocket because he was about to carry other weapons upstairs and had his hands full. The Respondent stated that he made no threats and he found it very difficult to live with his conviction as this did not reflect the person he was. The Respondent stated that this even had been life-changing and he had never been in any trouble before this incident.
  1. In reaching its decision, the Committee has heard and accepted the advice of the Legally Qualified Chair and has also borne in mind the contents of Standards 1 and 9 of the Architects Code, Standards of Professional Conduct and Practice 2017 (“the Code”).
  1. Standard 1 of the Code states:

Honesty and Integrity

You are expected at all times to act with honesty and integrity and to avoid any actions or situations which are inconsistent with your professional obligations. This standard underpins the Code and will be taken to be required in any consideration of your conduct under any of the other standards.

  1. Standard 9 of the Code states:

“Maintaining the reputation of architects”:

9.2 “You are expected to conduct yourself in a way which does not bring either yourself or the profession into disrepute. If you find yourself in a position where you know that you have fallen short of these standards, or that your conduct could reflect badly on the profession, you are expected to report the matter to the Board. For example, you should notify the Registrar within 28 days if you:

are convicted of a criminal offence;

………..

The above are examples of acts which may be examined in order to ascertain whether they disclose a wilful disregard of your responsibilities or a lack of integrity, however this list is not exhaustive”.

  1. The Committee has considered ARB’s submissions that the Respondent’s conduct amounts to a lack of integrity. The meaning of integrity was considered in the Court of Appeal in the cases of Wingate, Evans and Malins v SRA (2018) EWCA Civ 366 where it was referred to as

a useful shorthand to express the higher standards which society expects from professional persons and which the professions expect from their own members. The underlying rationale is that the professions have a privileged and trusted role in society. In return they are required to live up to their own professional standards…..Integrity connoted adherence to the ethical standards of one’s own profession. That involves more than mere honesty…..The duty of integrity does not require professional people to be paragons of virtue. In every instance, professional integrity is linked to the manner in which that particular profession professes to serve the public….

  1. Having considered all the circumstances of this case, and notwithstanding the Respondent’s explanations regarding the surrounding circumstances, the Committee considers that the Respondent’s conviction is demonstrative of a lack of integrity and amounts to a breach of Standard 1.
  1. The Committee concluded that the Respondent’s conduct also brings the profession into disrepute and amounts to a breach of Standard 9 of the Code. Compliance with the law is a fundamental obligation of a professional architect, and the Respondent has been convicted of a serious firearms offence for which a significant sentence of imprisonment was imposed by the court. This, in the Committee’s view, brings the profession into disrepute. The conviction was reported by the media and in the Respondent’s own evidence he acknowledged that this was, in part, because he was an architect. The Committee considered that the conviction demonstrated that the Respondent had initiated a confrontation and he had taken with him a firearm which caused fear to a member of the public carrying out his door-to-door sales job. The Committee considered that this conduct was relevant to the Respondent’s fitness to practice as it was a conviction which undermined public trust and confidence in the reputation of the profession and was behaviour that would not be expected of a professional.   
  1. In all the circumstances, the Committee therefore finds that the Respondent has been convicted of a criminal offence, other than an offence which has no material relevance to his fitness to practise as an architect.

Sanction 

  1. Ms Sheridan referred the Committee to the Sanctions Guidance and the approach to be taken at this stage of the process. She referred to the professional reputational issues resulting from the Respondent’s conduct, the fact that the conviction was for a serious matter. Ms Sheridan reminded the Committee that the Respondent was still serving his sentence albeit on license. Ms Sheridan submitted that the Respondent had demonstrated no insight about the effect of his conduct on the complainant in the criminal proceedings. In mitigation Ms Sheridan submitted that the Respondent had no adverse regulatory history, had fully engaged with the proceedings and was engaging with probation services.
  1. The Respondent acknowledged that it would not be right for him to practise as an architect whilst he was still subject to his sentence. He stated that he did not accept that the complainant in the criminal proceedings had told the truth and it would be dishonest of him to accept guilt and show remorse when this was based on a lie. The Respondent stated that he accepted that he had initiated a confrontation and acknowledged that the complainant would have been scared.   
  1. 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 disciplinary order is not to punish an architect for a second time for the same offence, but to protect the public and maintain the collective reputation of the profession. It has taken into account the Respondent’s interests, the Sanctions Guidance and the need to act proportionately, taking into account all the aggravating and mitigating factors identified in this case. 
  1. The Committee was also mindful of the principle derived from the case of Bolton v Law Society [1994] 1 WLR 512 in that the collective reputation of the profession is more important than the fortunes of the individual member and that expulsion from the profession was appropriate for serious lapses.
  1. In reaching its decision, the Committee has identified the following aggravating factors;
  1. that the conviction was for a serious offence causing fear and distress to a member of the public and the Respondent has demonstrated little remorse;
  2. that in relation to the UPC allegation the complainant remains out of pocket;
  3. iii.the Respondent has shown little insight into the effect of his conduct; 
  1. The Committee has taken into account the following mitigating factors:
  1. the Respondent does not have an adverse regulatory history;
  2. the conviction was a single isolated incident; 
  3. iii.the Respondent has fully engaged and been open and transparent during the disciplinary process;  
  4. iv.the Respondent’s conduct took place at a time when he was experiencing difficult personal circumstances and health issues;
  5. the Respondent has made an offer to repay his client, albeit very late in the day.
  1. The Committee has borne in mind that in part the matters found proved before it do stem from his professional practice as an architect. The Committee is also mindful that a sentence from a criminal court is not necessarily a reliable guide to the appropriate sanction to impose bearing in mind the need within a regulatory context to ensure the maintenance of public confidence in the profession. It is also of fundamental importance that an architect can be trusted to keep client money safe and provide them with the information they need.
  1. In the circumstances, the Committee considers that a sanction is necessary to protect the public. In addition, in the light of the aggravating factors outlined above, the Committee finds that the matters are sufficiently serious for a sanction to be imposed to protect the public interest. It has considered the options available in ascending order of severity.
  1. The Committee first considered whether to impose a reprimand. The Committee considered that the conduct was too serious for a reprimand. It considered that although the Respondent had a previous good disciplinary history, this was not of itself enough for a reprimand to be appropriate. The Respondent’s failings had a significant impact on his client, the complainant in the criminal proceedings and the reputation of the profession. Although the Committee accepted that the Respondent had been imprisoned and it had no doubt that the criminal proceedings, media attention and the ARB hearing process had been a salutary lesson, this was not sufficient of itself to uphold proper professional standards. The Committee considered the Respondent’s failings too serious for such a sanction to be either appropriate or proportionate. 
  2. The Committee then considered whether to impose a penalty order. For the same reasons as set out above it considered that this was not the appropriate and proportionate sanction to uphold proper professional standards and public confidence in the profession. The Committee considered that the Respondent’s conduct was not at the lower end of the spectrum and encompassed multiple failures of proper communication with his client in one project and caused financial loss. The Committee considered that the Respondent’s criminal conduct had caused a member of the public to fear for their safety. The Committee considered that a penalty order would not reflect the seriousness of the matters found proved. 
  1. The Committee next considered whether to impose a suspension order. The Committee considered that this would address the seriousness of the matters found proved. The Committee considered that the conduct is capable of being remedied and the Respondent has begun to show some insight into certain aspects. The Committee does not consider that the Respondent has entrenched integrity issues or that the conduct is fundamentally incompatible with the Respondent continuing to be a registered architect. The Committee does not consider that the Respondent is unable to appreciate the nature of his failings such that he should be erased from the Register. 
  1. The Committee therefore decided that a period of suspension for 12 months was the appropriate and proportionate order. This period would be sufficient to ensure that the Respondent did not resume practice whilst still serving his sentence. In addition, the Committee considered it would reflect the seriousness of the matters found proved, protect the public and to uphold the reputation of the profession.
  1. The Committee acknowledged that the order was likely to have an impact on the Respondent and it took into account all of the circumstances. However, it considered that it was appropriate to temporarily remove the Respondent from the register for this period in order to uphold proper professional standards and to maintain the reputation of the profession. 
  1. The Committee considered that a longer period would be disproportionate and unduly punitive. The Committee noted that it was to the Respondent’s credit that he had not sought to practice as an architect since his release from prison in August 2021 and he had effectively stopped practising before he was imprisoned. In these circumstances the Committee considered that the period of 12 months was sufficient to uphold proper professional standards and strike a proportionate balance between the interests of the public and the interests of the Respondent.  
  1. That concludes this determination.