Dr John Alan Walker v The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
CourtPrivy Council
JudgeLord Mance
Judgment Date21 Nov 2007
Neutral Citation[2007] UKPC 64
Docket NumberAppeal No 16 of 2007

[2007] UKPC 64

Privy Council

Present at the hearing:-

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Lord Mance

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury

Appeal No 16 of 2007
Dr John Alan Walker
Appellant
and
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
Respondent

[Delivered by Lord Mance]

1

Dr John Alan Walker has for more than 26 years practised as a veterinary surgeon. The excellence of his clinical judgment and professional skill is not in doubt. Before qualifying as a veterinary surgeon he obtained a doctorate in membrane biochemistry and for twelve years pursued an academic career. In 1981 he joined his father's veterinary practice, became a sole practitioner when his father's health worsened, and thereafter built up a successful mainly equine practice with some 13 vets. The practice has veterinary hospital status. Dr Walker has, since 1st September 2006 when he was 60, been a consultant, working three days a week and earning in the region of £36,000 p.a. From May 2003 to May 2005 he was Secretary, and from May 2005 to May 2007 he was Chairman, of the Racecourse Vets Association.

2

A dispute arose which led to former clients of Dr Walker, a husband and wife who owned and trained race-horses, suing him with regard to a horse called Moorlands Again. During the course of those proceedings, in late 2005, one or both of the couple reported Dr Walker to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons ("RCVS") for inaccurate certification in relation to horse passports for three horses, Moorlands Again, Ryton Run and Six Clerks. Dr Walker had for some 20 years looked after the vaccination of their horses, but their evidently determined review of their previous relationship with him revealed no other discrepancies. The RCVS in April 2006 referred the matter to a preliminary investigation committee and then to solicitors with a view to considering whether to take disciplinary proceedings. In August 2006 Dr Walker reported to the RCVS an approach by the wife offering to retract the complaint, if they could meet and agree a satisfactory outcome to the proceedings, to which Dr Walker's reply had been that the complaint had now been made and he had to suffer the consequences.

3

The consequences were three charges of disgraceful conduct in a professional respect brought before the RCVS Disciplinary Committee under ss.15/16 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. The charges were heard and determined on 29 th/30 th January 2007, when charges 1 and 3 relating to, respectively, Moorlands Away and Six Clerks were found proved. On charge 2 relating to Ryton Run, disgraceful conduct was not established, and the Committee accepted Dr Walker's explanation that there had been a genuine clerical mistake with no intent to mislead, and that the vaccination was still valid, the welfare of the animal unaffected and no adverse consequences with regard to animal health and welfare. Having heard submissions and retired to consider the appropriate sanctions in respect of the two charges proved, the Committee decided that the only appropriate course was removal of Dr Walker's name from the Register of veterinary surgeons. Against that determination Dr Walker now appeals to the Board under s.17 of the 1966 Act.

4

The circumstances giving rise to charges 1 and 3 were as follows. Under Jockey Club Rule 35(i) all horses that enter property owned, used or controlled by the Managing Executive had to be vaccinated against equine influenza in accordance with the general requirements of Rules 35(ii) and (iii). Under Rule 35(ii) all horses for which a passport had been issued and that entered such property had to have the vaccination section of their passport completed by a "Recognised Turf Authority or a Veterinary Surgeon" (being neither the owner nor the trainer nor a person entered in the Register of Stable Employees as employed by the trainer). So completed, the passport had to show that the horse had received (a) two primary vaccinations against equine influenza no less than 21 and no more than 92 days apart, and, in addition, where sufficient time has elapsed, (b) a booster no less than 150 and no more than 215 days after the first and (c) booster vaccinations not more than one year apart. It had also to show that none of such vaccinations had been given within the 7 days previous to any race in which the horse was declared to run. Failure by a trainer to comply with Rule 35 could lead to disciplinary proceedings being instituted before the disciplinary committee of the Jockey Club (the regulatory functions of which have more recently been transferred to the Horseracing Regulatory Authority and now to the British Horseracing Board).

5

Moorlands Again, Ryton Run and Six Clerks were all of an age at which their passports showed that they required booster vaccinations at intervals not more than a year apart. Failing such vaccinations, they would have to recommence the process with two primary vaccinations. Ryton Run's passport showed that it had received an annual booster on 24 th November 1999. On 5 th December 2000, Dr Walker administered a further booster, but inserted in the passport the date 22 nd November 2000. This made it appear that the booster was in time under Jockey Club rules. Moorlands Again's passport showed that it had received an annual booster on 12 th September 2002. On 26 th September 2003 Dr Walker administered a further booster, but inserted in the passport the date 10 th September 2003. Again, this made it appear that the booster was in time.

6

On being first confronted with the complaint relating to these two horses, Dr Walker's replied to the RCVS at once on 16 th January 2006:

"On both occasions, I had, upon request, vaccinated the horses before I inspected the passports. The dates entered ensured that their passports were up to date and complied with the rules of the Jockey Club for racing. I realised that they were out of date but due to the fact that they had been regularly vaccinated, I was content that the horses' protection against both important diseases had not been compromised. I did not wish to compromise their welfare by subjecting them to an additional course of vaccines, when I considered their protection to be in order, despite the lapses of 11 and 14 days respectively.

I now fully realise the error of my ways and I am highly embarrassed that I have allowed myself to be pressurised. For this error of judgment I sincerely apologise and I will take every precaution to ensure that it does not happen again."

7

In evidence, Dr Walker explained that the backdating had been his decision and the pressure referred to was self-imposed. He felt sure, however, that he would have said something afterwards to the owner to the effect that the passport had been out of date, that he had 'corrected' it and that she could carry on and train the horse. The antedating involved him in no gain, rather the opposite since a new course would have earned him more than a booster injection. It was not his responsibility to ensure that the horses were vaccinated with a year, it was the owners'. The wife was a well-organised owner and he had, contrary to his normal practice, administered the injection without first seeing the passport and on the assumption that she had arranged the injection for a date within the year. Only upon subsequent inspection of the passport did this prove not to be so, whereupon he had undertaken the backdating. Questioned specifically about Moorlands Again, he said that he had wanted to be helpful and, in not commencing a fresh course, had had in mind the risk of reaction that existed with any vaccinations. He could not specifically remember the circumstances regarding Six Clerks. The data sheet for the equine influenza vaccine that Dr Walker administered only required any booster injection to be within 15 months of the last booster, adding merely that the "routine practice" of annual boosters "may remain the most convenient, even though protection against equine influenza has been demonstrated by challenge studies". There was therefore no medical risk involved in the failure to observe the Jockey Club's annual time limit. Questioning of Dr Walker to the effect that, if annual certificates were regularly mis-dated by vets, there was a risk that the 15 month period would be exceeded seems to have been misplaced. The risk of vets post-dating booster certificates must be negligible. Ante-dating of a previous certificate would mean that the period since the last booster was shorter, rather than longer. The Committee also noted, when finding that Dr Walker had conducted himself disgracefully, that the owners after reporting Dr Walker to the RCVS continued to race Moorlands Again and to administer annual boosters, without restarting the primary course of injections as the wife knew to be necessary under Jockey Club rules. Her explanation for this was that she had taken advice from a professional veterinary surgeon. No steps appear to have been taken by or against anyone in that respect.

8

In finding disgraceful conduct on Dr Walker's part, the Disciplinary Committee of the RCVS observed that it

"regards any falsification as extremely serious because it weakens the confidence of the public and damages integrity of the veterinary profession. In these two cases, the actions of Dr Walker have fallen far short of the standard which is to be expected by a member of the profession."

The Committee received character evidence and heard counsel's submissions which highlighted inter alia Dr Walker's frankness, his hitherto unblemished record of care and attention to animals, the shame, anxiety and great worry that had already been occasioned to him, the absence of any personal gain and of any risk to the two horses, the fact that he had given inadequate consideration to what he did and the Committee's duty to...

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