The vast majority of the time, your relationship with your vet will be a healthy and productive one. However, sometimes things go terribly wrong. So wrong, in fact, that you feel “this should never have happened, and must never happen again”. So what happens then? How can you make a complaint about a vet – and what is the process? Is it the same as suing them? Do you need a lawyer? In this blog, I’m going to look at the tragic situations where the vet – client relationship breaks down.
First, decide why you’re complaining – and if you really need to.
It is really important to remember that there is a difference between “misconduct”, “negligence”, “bad luck”, and “poor service”. Although all four can leave any of us frustrated and angry and looking for someone to blame, they are legally – and practically – different.
Also sometimes known as “malpractice”, professional misconduct is defined by the regulator as “behaviour that falls… short of that to be expected of a veterinary surgeon”. This would include, for example, fraudulent activity (such as backdating vaccination records, falsifying records). Or gross failures in the vet’s professional duties (such as not providing pain relief where it was appropriate; refusing to care for an animal brought to them; or providing such poor care that it is unjustifiable).
In reality, serious professional conduct (such that the vet’s fitness to practise is seriously questionable) is actually quite rare. This is the most serious level of investigation, and the vet would be investigated by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS). Despite its name, the RCVS is not an educational establishment but the statutory regulator for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, whose responsibilities include disciplining the two professions.
In fact, the vast majority of professional conduct investigations boil down to poor communication. Not all vets, sadly, are good at communicating what is going on; equally, when you are scared, distressed or in shock, it’s harder to process new information. This can give rise to misunderstandings on both sides. And if there is a bad outcome, this can leave a lot of people (often including the vet) feeling hurt and angry.
Negligence is the legal term used to describe the situation when the veterinary professional has not exercised the care that was appropriate. For a case to be negligent, three criteria all have to be met:
- The animal was under the care of that professional (i.e. they had a duty of care).
- The level of care provided fell far short of “the standards expected of an average or reasonably competent vet/RVN” (in other words, the duty of care was breached)
- Harm came to another person as a result. It’s important to remember that negligence is a civil matter. So harm coming to an animal does not automatically mean negligence has occurred; you must have been distressed or suffered financial loss (or even been injured yourself) before this can apply.
There is some overlap with the laws of Trespass (where the veterinary surgeon performed a procedure on your animal against your wishes – although this is usually trumped by the Animal Welfare Act) and Breach of Contract (where the vet has taken your money but not done something they agreed to, or they have done it and you have not paid them).
It is essential to remember that in veterinary medicine, as in medicine more broadly, there are no certainties. The vet will have decided on a course of action based on the odds of success; and so a poor outcome does not necessarily mean that they have been negligent or that there has been professional misconduct.
The best vet in the world will occasionally lose patients, and sometimes unexpectedly for no obvious reason. Tragically, that is just a fact of life.
Just because it’s gone wrong doesn’t mean that the vet is to blame. Some illnesses are untreatable, some conditions do not become apparent until it is too late to do anything about them.
Poor service, including high prices, for example, are not considered matters of negligence or professional misconduct. The RCVS in particular will not get involved in disputes over fees, if those fees were agreed and alternatives (such as euthanasia) were offered. If you have agreed to pay a fee, then legally you owe that fee; there is no ombudsman for veterinary fees. The main reason for this is that the RCVS are legally only permitted to regulate the conduct of the individual vets and nurses, they have no jurisdiction over a veterinary practice or their fees.
Second, what do you want to achieve?
If you believe that the veterinary surgeon is a danger to his or her patients, then it would be reasonable to seek disciplinary measures – further education, a warning or reprimand, or even a suspension from the Register, so they are no longer able to practice or work. This will not, of course, provide you with any compensation or recompense, if it does go through.
If you feel you deserve compensation, then that has to be awarded by the courts, and will only normally happen in negligence cases, or occasionally in other contract disputes.
If you want a business to amend their practices, policies, or pricing structures, then that needs to be handled between you and the veterinary practice in question, although in some cases legal action or the threat of it will result in alterations.
The different ways to complain or progress a complaint
In the first instance, you should always contact the practice directly to express your concerns.
The majority of complaints, concerns, or issues can be dealt with at this level, with the vet in question being given more training, for example, or a practice policy being changed.
If that isn’t sufficient, there are three other avenues.
If you are concerned that misconduct has happened, you need to raise a Concern with the RCVS. They will then investigate further (although it may take some time!). There is no need for you to engage a lawyer as the RCVS will investigate and “prosecute” any cases within their own system. However, you should be aware that your name will be passed to the person you are complaining about so that they can defend themselves.
It is uncommon for a case to be negligent and not a matter of professional misconduct, although it can happen. If you wish to take action for negligence, you need to engage and pay for a lawyer (the RCVS do not deal with negligence).
These complaints should usually be directed at the practice, not the individual. Remember, the vet you deal with in the vast majority of cases has no control over the fees they charge, or the practice policies they follow, which are set by the business management!
If your complaint is unrewarding, there are limited further routes to explore, but leaving a non-defamatory review of the practice is a suitable way to ensure that your concerns are heard and brought to a wider audience.
Arbitration and mediation
In cases that do not meet the threshold for Serious Professional Misconduct, you may be directed to a mediation service, to help thrash out the dispute between you and the vet.
In some Negligence cases, your lawyers and the veterinary professional’s lawyers may seek arbitration, where both of you agree to a neutral arbiter to decide the merits of the case without going to court.
Do you really need to do this?
Always think long and hard before making a complaint about your vet. You are embarking on a route that may result in the vet losing their licence to practise, their job, and sadly in many cases ultimately their life. If you genuinely believe that they are a threat to other animals, then this is 100% the right thing to do. But if you’re angry and lashing out because you’re hurting (and we understand – we all feel that way sometimes!), then this sort of revenge is not a solution.
None of us in the profession want to be working alongside someone who callously puts their patients at risk. But we are only human, and we do make mistakes. We probably feel as bad about our mistakes as you do, and so I’d say please, please, please only make a formal complaint about your vet if you are certain that it is necessary and all other routes have failed.