Even the most careful and skilled veterinarians are susceptible to a complaint to the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (the “CVO”). Receiving a complaint from the CVO can be stressful and time-consuming and the potential outcomes can be serious. In many cases, a veterinarian’s response to the complaint is the best opportunity to ensure a favourable result. Given the importance of an effective response, we outline the top 5 things veterinarians need to know when responding to complaints.
(1) The CVO will investigate the complaint
Section 24(1) of the Veterinarians Act requires the CVO to investigate and consider complaints made regarding the conduct of a veterinarian. Where a complaint is made, the veterinarian is notified of the complaint and given at least 14 days to respond in writing. The investigation may include the gathering of relevant documents and taking statements from witnesses. Where additional investigation is conducted, the veterinarian is usually given an opportunity to submit a further response. The complaint is then considered by a panel of the Complaints Committee, comprised of veterinarians and appointed members of the public.
(2) The process is in writing
Because the Complaints Committee is a screening committee, it only considers a paper record and cannot make credibility assessments. There is no right to make oral submissions or for a lawyer to cross-examine the complainant or other witnesses. For this reason, records and documentation are critical. When a veterinarian receives a complaint, they should carefully review their records and submit records with their written response where appropriate.
(3) The consequences of a complaint can be serious
Once the Complaints Committee has had an opportunity to review the complaint, the results of the investigation, and the veterinarian’s response, it can:
- refer allegations of professional misconduct to the Discipline Committee for a hearing;
- direct the Registrar to consider whether the veterinarian may be impaired;
- require the veterinarian to appear in-person to receive advice related to improving their practice;
- ask the veterinarian to sign an undertaking agreeing to a remediation program, such as coursework or mentoring; or,
- take no action.
If the complaint is referred to the Discipline Committee and allegations of professional misconduct are proven, the Discipline Committee may make a variety of more serious orders, including an order revoking, suspending, or placing terms, conditions, and limitations on a veterinarian’s licence. Because a complaint can result in significant personal, professional, and financial consequences, it is important to take every complaint seriously.
(4) The Complaints Committee decision may be reviewed
With the exception of decisions to refer a complaint to the Discipline Committee or to the Registrar, a decision of the Complaints Committee may be appealed by either the complainant or the veterinarian to the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (“HPARB”). The appeal must be brought within 30 days of the issuance of the decision. HPARB can consider the adequacy of the investigation and the reasonableness of the decision. If the investigation is deemed inadequate or the decision unreasonable, the matter may be sent back to the Complaints Committee with recommendations and/or directions as to how to proceed further.
(5) An effective first response to a complaint is vital
A veterinarian’s written response is their best opportunity to mitigate the potential adverse effects of a complaint. Responding to a complaint is a nuanced and difficult task that requires persuasive writing, careful analysis, and an understanding of how the CVO is likely to respond. Veterinarians may wish to consider retaining a lawyer experienced in professional regulation and discipline to draft their response and assist them in navigating the CVO’s complaints process.
GlickLaw is a boutique law firm focused on professional regulation, complaints, investigations, and discipline. If you have received notice of a complaint or investigation and would like to speak to a lawyer, please contact us.