Professional Regulation: Using Social Media


5 August 2019

By Roger Brice

Using social media…

Such regulation involves professional bodies exercising regulatory functions to impose requirements, restrictions and to set standards in respect of a wide variety of professions including doctors, vets, solicitors and social workers to name but a few. The purpose of these bodies is to maintain, protect and promote confidence and trust in the profession in addition to improving education and practice.

Social media is an emerging area of concern for regulators (and extended third parties) who are keen to ensure that a high standard of professional ethics are maintained.

The Court of Appeal has, this month, had to rule on such an issue relating to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in respect of a student enrolled on a two-year MA Social Work course at the University of Sheffield ("the University"). The HCPC's code of conduct applies to practitioners, providers of accredited courses and students and includes guidance as to the use of social media.

The case involved the expression of religious views by the student on a public social media platform (namely Facebook) disapproving of homosexual acts. Upon notification of the postings, the University embarked on disciplinary proceedings and ultimately took the decision to remove the student from his course on fitness to practice grounds. The students sought judicial review of this decision with the High Court dismissing this challenge.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the HCPS professional code and guidelines did not prohibit the use of social media to share personal views and opinions, but simply said that the university might have to take action "if the comments posted were offensive, for example if they were racist or sexually explicit". Although finding in favour of the student, the Court found that the student's reaction (equally untenable) to the University's stance, was also not in accordance with the relevant HCPC guidelines. The Court commented that the right to freedom of expression is not an unqualified right: professional bodies and organisations are entitled to place reasonable and proportionate restrictions on those subject to their professional codes; and, just because a belief is said to be a religious belief, does not give a person subject to professional regulation the right to express such beliefs in any way he or she sees fit. Ultimately, however, the University wrongly confused the express of religious views with the notion of discrimination. The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal determining that the University's disciplinary proceedings were flawed and unfair to the student. The case was remitted for a new hearing before a differently constituted Fitness to Practise Committee.

The case helpfully demonstrates that our appellate courts are prepared to determine issues which relate to a professional regulation and in highly topical areas such as social media and the proclamation of highly sensitive religious views that some might consider demonstrate hostility towards homosexuals.

The case also illustrates the importance to all those in a professional career of the need to maintain the highest standards as determined by their regulatory body.

For more information

Please contact Peter Butterfield, via phone on 01245 228131 via e-mail. Peter has a growing interest in the representation of professionals before their regulatory bodies. He has experience of representing individuals in such matters and his empathetic approach combined with advocacy skills honed over 2 decades is a perfect fit for this area of law.  

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.