Decision: Alison Hepburn (Panel Meeting)

Fitness to Teach Panel Outcome

Full Hearing

19 May 2021

TeacherAlison Hepburn (not present/not represented)
Registration Number820286
Registration CategoryPrimary
PanelMichele Knight, Pauline McClellan and Ruth Sharp
Legal AssessorFiona Drysdale
Servicing OfficerFiona Law
Presenting OfficerSarah Donnachie (Anderson Strathern LLP) (not present)
Teacher’s representativeN/A

Any reference in this decision to:

  • ‘GTCS’ means the General Teaching Council for Scotland;
  • the ‘Panel’ means the Fitness to Teach Panel considering the case; and
  • the ‘Rules’ (and any related expression) means the GTCS Fitness to Teach Rules 2017 or refers to a provision (or provisions) within them.

Background

The Panel Meeting was arranged to consider the following:

  • An application made by the Presenting Officer for a virtual Full Hearing.

By default, GTCS conducts all its fitness to teach hearings in person in its dedicated Hearings Suite at its office in Edinburgh. However, a fitness to teach panel may order that all or any part of a hearing may be conducted by the use of electronic communications provided the method adopted allows the parties, the panel and any witnesses to attend remotely, and, where the hearing is in public, allows the public to view proceedings.

Electronic communications are commonly used for witnesses to give evidence by participating from a remote location. In addition, an entire hearing may be conducted via electronic communication. Such a hearing is described as a ‘virtual hearing’.

At present, due to Scottish Government restrictions and guidelines on public interaction and concerns about public safety as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, hearings in person cannot currently take place at the GTCS office. 

An application for use of electronic communications in relation to a participant taking part in a hearing from a remote location or for a virtual hearing is made by the party who wants to use electronic communication. The relevant procedure and criteria for determining such applications are set out in the Use of Electronic Communications in Hearings Practice Statement.

Evidence

In accordance with Rule 1.7.17, the Panel admitted all of the documents and statements listed below as evidence for the purposes of the meeting:

  1. Virtual Hearing Application by Presenting Officer, dated 22 March 2021
  2. Appendix to the Presenting Officer’s Application
  3. Response from Teacher, dated 6 April 2021
  4. Email communication between the Parties and the Servicing Officer, dated 23 February to 10 May 2021
  5. Email from the Teacher regarding proceeding without legal representation, dated 28 April 2021

Preliminary Matters

The Panel did not deal with any preliminary matters.

Application

An application dated 22 March 2021 for a virtual hearing was made by the Presenting Officer. The Panel considered the application and submissions made in response which addressed, in particular, the following factors:

  • Is the Teacher represented?

The Teacher was not represented but has indicated that she may choose to be represented at the full hearing, her solicitor having recently retired and being unable to appear for health reasons.

  • Does the Teacher have any particular needs or vulnerabilities?

The Teacher has not made any submission that any needs or vulnerabilities are relevant to the virtual nature of the hearing.

  • How will the Teacher and Representative, if any, communicate during the hearing?

The Teacher is not represented and had not opposed the application for a virtual hearing.

  • The nature of the proceedings and issues to be determined at the hearing?

All stages of a Full Hearing will need to be determined.

  • The estimated length of the hearing?

The anticipated duration of the hearing is 4 days.

  • The extent and complexity of the issues in dispute?

The hearing is not overly complex, it will relate to a factual dispute concerning the actions of the Teacher which are the subject of the allegations.

  • Will the hearing take place in public or (partly) in private?

The default position that GTCS hearings will take place in public applies in the present case.

  • The volume of documentation to be referred to during the hearing and how documentation will be provided to witnesses for reference, if required?

The documentation to be considered by the Panel at the full hearing will include papers for the Presenting Officer and papers for the Teacher but were not made available to the Panel. It is envisaged that individual witness bundles will be prepared which will include the witness statement and associated documentation that will be referred to during their evidence.

  • The nature of witnesses to give evidence at the hearing?

The Presenting Officer advised there will be five witnesses  for GTCS including three professional witnesses: one Teacher witness, one pupil support assistant, and one Inspector for Education Scotland.  The remaining two witnesses for GTCS are two parents of a pupil.  There are no witnesses for the Teacher.

  • How long is each witness estimated to give evidence for?

It is anticipated that each witness will take 1-2 hours each.

  • Do any of the witnesses have particular needs or vulnerabilities?

The Panel was not made aware of any particular needs or vulnerabilities of any witnesses.

  • What confidence is there that each witness will be able to follow questions easily and any documents being referred to?

Based on the manner in which virtual hearings have thus far been conducted, there is great confidence that the witnesses will be able to follow questions easily and any documents referred to. There is no evidence that they will not be able to do so.

  • How will witnesses be provided with hearing documentation?

The Teacher will have access to the hearing bundle in advance of any hearing. The witness bundle will be emailed to each witness shortly before they are due to give evidence

  • Will all participants at the hearing have access to a suitable electronic device?

It is anticipated that each participant has access to a suitable electronic device. In addition, it is envisaged that GTCS and participants will perform checks in advance of any virtual hearing to ensure that such a hearing is at that time viable.

  • Will all participants have a suitable internet connection capable of coping with the requirements of a virtual hearing?

It is anticipated that each participant has access to a suitable internet connection and that a test call will be conducted by GTCS  prior to the hearing.

  • Will all participants have an appropriate location from where they can participate alone and undisturbed?

It is anticipated that each participant has an appropriate location from where they can participate alone and undisturbed. The Servicing Officer will check this prior to the hearing. If participants do not have access to an appropriate location, it is expected that they make alternative arrangements.

The issue of the assessment of the credibility and reliability of witnesses at a virtual hearing was considered. It was considered that it will be possible for a Panel to assess credibility and reliability because a number of virtual hearings have taken place and there has been no issue of this nature.  

Decision

The Panel appreciated that it should balance all of the relevant factors outlined above, the interests of the parties and the public interest in deciding whether or not to grant the application.

The Panel carefully considered the application and submissions made in response to it. The Panel had regard to the Rules and to the Use of Electronic Communications in Hearings Practice Statement as well as the advice, as required, of the Legal Assessor and Servicing Officer.

The Panel decided that the balance of the various factors and interests to be assessed in determining the application weighed in favour of granting the application made.

The Panel did not consider that there were any personal, evidential, practical or technical reasons to refuse the application. In addition, the Panel observed that the Teacher had not opposed the application. Further, given the ongoing issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there would be a considerable delay in the progress of the present proceedings if the application were to be refused.

Accordingly, the Panel granted the application for the hearing to take place virtually.

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