A group of nurses and midwives who have been through fitness to practise procedures themselves has launched a crowdfunding appeal to pay for legal advice for others who cannot afford it.
The NMCWatch group said it hoped to raise at least £5,000 to pay for legal advice and representation for those not represented by unions and who cannot meet hefty legal bills.
“It is an extremely stressful situation and one that the lawyers for the NMC are well versed in”
Founder member Cathryn Watters told Nursing Times that the crowdfunding drive had come out of the group’s work with registrants, which found many struggled without legal representation or an advocate.
“It is an extremely stressful situation and one that the lawyers for the NMC are well versed in but one the registrant has never experienced before,” she said.
While the Nursing and Midwifery Council did provide information about what to expect, she said registrants without legal representation were often ill-prepared for what they had to face and struggled to cope without having someone next to them who was “on their side”.
“Most panels seem to be supportive if you are not represented,” she said. “However, it is still up to the registrant to ‘prove’ their evidence and stand up against cross examination.
She said: “Case presenters can make the registrant feel their case is hopeless before it has even started. Registrants can feel scared to be open and honest and frightened about what to say and what not to say.”
“Jane works on minimum wage, 12 hours a day packing boxes in a chocolate factory”
Meanwhile, she said others did not attend hearings because they “cannot face it alone”, which could potentially result in a heavier sanction.
Ms Watters said NMCWatch could help registrants access some free help and support, provide reduced cost legal advice and representation, or recommend other legal experts.
Those that the group is hoping to help if the crowdfunding appeal takes off include one newly-qualified nurse who was referred to the NMC for “minor mistakes” and is now working in a chocolate factory because she cannot get a nursing job.
According to a summary of her case published on the crowdfunding page, “Jane” had been qualified less than a year before she was referred to the NMC for “minor mistakes that should have been dealt with at trust level”.
“She suffered discrimination by her employer and did not get the support and supervision that newly qualified nurses should get in their first post,” said the case study, which notes that the NMC is still deciding if there is a case to answer.
“Unfortunately, the legal support from unions can be mixed”
In the meantime, conditions of practice placed on her registration mean she had found it hard to find employment as a nurse or care assistant and, therefore, maintain her registration.
“Consequently Jane works on minimum wage, 12 hours a day packing boxes in a chocolate factory,” said the summary.
Ms Watters confirmed “Jane” was among several people the group would like to help if they can raise enough money.
“We have one registrant we would like to support if we can raise the funds and without it will not be able to attend the hearing,” she said.
“We have one other we would like to support who is considering an appeal and exploring all possibilities,” she added.
She said the group may look at setting up a formal fund with charitable status in the future, but admitted that raising money in this way was still something of a short-term solution.
“For the moment many registrants feel they have nowhere else to go”
Long-term she highlighted the need to raise awareness among nursing students of the importance of union membership alongside work to improve support currently available.
“Unfortunately, the legal support from unions can be mixed,” she said. “There needs to be open and honest communication between the unions and registrants on what good legal representation looks like.
“Long-term some collaborative work between pro-bono organisations, the NMC and the unions would be wonderful,” said Ms Watters, who launched a petition last year calling for fundamental change in the way fitness to practise were cases were handled.
She suggested that this collaborative work could potentially lead to providing registrants with “supportive professionals” to offer moral, if not legal, support.
In addition, she said she hoped the NMC’s ongoing review of FtP processes would result in real change.
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“When the review of FtP is completed we hope a more transparent, open and efficient process will be put in place, which balances the need to maintain public safety and the public interest but also that ensures it is fair to the registrant,” she said.
“If the review results in fewer hearings and less lengthy and costly hearings, maybe in time the money can be redirected to support registrants more? It is after all their fees,” she stated.
She told Nursing Times that members of the NMCWatch group met with the NMC regularly to share their thoughts and that the regulator had been “very receptive”, which was “encouraging”.
“One day we hope we won’t be as necessary but for the moment many registrants feel they have nowhere else to go,” she added.
As previously reported by Nursing Times, Ms Watters and her group held their first meeting earlier this year and have subsequently begun campaigning for change, including by revealing the impact on mental health that the FtP process can have on nurses.
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It was revealed earlier this week that the Nursing and Midwifery Council has continued to meet nearly all of its core standards but there are still concerns over the way it handles some aspects of fitness to practise cases, particularly in the way it supports complainants.
The latest annual performance review of the NMC, published on Tuesday by the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, found it had achieved 23 out of 24 key standards for good regulation.