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Suspension for the accused?
  1. Adele Waters

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Georgina Bretman grew up with a passion for animals – all she ever wanted to do was work in the veterinary profession. She described it as her ‘calling in life’.

After successfully completing a veterinary nursing course, she graduated in 2011 and went on to work in practice, specialising in emergency work and animal rehabilitation.

But just two years later, aged 28, her career came to an abrupt end when she poisoned her pet dog by injecting it with insulin.

A professed animal lover, she showed no remorse for her actions. Her dog, a two-year-old cocker spaniel bitch, survived the assault but only after prompt veterinary intervention following collapse and a series of seizures. Experts later told her subsequent criminal trial that the dog would have experienced significant pain.

Following the incident, Bretman from Helensburgh, in Scotland, was suspended from her job by her employer, a vet who had become suspicious of her apparently healthy dog’s need for recurrent emergency veterinary intervention. She was also reported to the Scottish SPCA.

Throughout her trial, Bretman maintained her innocence and expressed a desire to work in practice again, but she was convicted of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal. She has not worked as a veterinary nurse since.

But due to the length of time it took to remove her name from the register, her case has wider significance.

Bretman’s criminal conviction came in August 2017 but it was only in January this year – almost six years after the crime – that her case was finally brought to the RCVS Veterinary Nurse Disciplinary Committee and she was subsequently struck off the register.

Importantly, during that time, the RCVS was powerless to prevent her working as a veterinary nurse, should she have been successful in gaining a nursing position.

Her case has prompted the RCVS council to consider new powers to temporarily suspend vets or vet nurses who have been accused of serious crimes (see p 784).

College registrar Eleanor Ferguson is keen to bring the veterinary professions in line with their medical equivalents – both the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which hold such powers.

And Ferguson has support from council too. As council member Liz Cox commented at last month’s council meeting, it is concerning that someone charged with an act of animal cruelty could continue working with animals – even after their conviction.

However, such powers would also bring difficulties. First, it is an accepted legal principle – certainly here in the UK – that we are all innocent until proven guilty. Making a judgement about someone’s supposed transgression before the evidence has been properly examined flies in the face of that maxim.

Second, the option to suspend brings with it a practical difficulty – the question of who should pay the salaries of the professionals concerned. Employers would be vulnerable to a legal challenge if they sacked an employee without confirmation they had acted improperly or illegally, so any vet professional subject to an RCVS interim suspension would have to be placed on gardening leave and continue to receive their salary as normal.

On the first point, presumption of innocence can be superseded when it comes to matters of public interest or patient safety – the latter trumping the former.

And on the issue of pay, for the majority of UK medics and nurses, this is less of a problem since they are employed by the NHS and the public purse foots the bill. Those in the private sector need to take out indemnity insurance with a medical defence organisation and it is likely that vet professionals would need access to a similar scheme.

The veterinary world can take advice from a well trodden path in the medical one

If the RCVS pursues this course, then the veterinary world can take advice from a well trodden path in the medical one.

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