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In Wanglin v College of Acupuncturists of Alberta, 2023 ABCA 25, the Alberta Court of Appeal upheld a finding of professional misconduct against the former president of the College of Acupuncturists, based on a violation of the College’s conflict of interest policy. Specifically, Dr. Wanglin had held a leadership role in another acupuncture-related association while she was president of the College, and failed to disclose her involvement in this leadership role to the College.
Dr. Wanglin challenged some of the fact findings of the original Hearing Panel, as well as the subsequent Review Panel’s decision not to admit new evidence that she sought to adduce. In each of these respects, the Court of Appeal held that the panel had made no error.
More interestingly, Dr. Wanglin argued that even if she had breached the College’s conflict of interest policy, this breach did not amount to professional misconduct because it was not detrimental to the interests of the public, and the Hearing Panel and Review panel were wrong to conclude otherwise. This argument was seemingly based on the assertion that “the general public would be unlikely to hold strong opinions towards their acupuncturist, should that acupuncturist have engaged in a perceived conflict of interest by holding two executive positions at the same time.”
The Court of Appeal did not accept this argument, and notably, stated that “the Hearing Panel and the Review Panel are better positioned than this Court to assess the impact of Dr. Wanglin’s conduct on the public interest and the reputation of the profession from the perspective of a reasonable member of the public.” The Court further noted that it must defer to the panel’s findings on this topic, absent some clearly unreasonable conclusion, clear mistake of fact, or error in principle by the panel.
The Court’s decision affirms the principle that tribunals of regulated colleges are generally better positioned than courts to determine the impact of members’ conduct on the public interest, and such findings will typically be given deference.
Our Two Cents for Free
When giving written reasons, some decision makers will set out the facts in significant detail, but then give only brief reasons addressing the arguments made by the person being disciplined – leaving the decision vulnerable to appeal on the basis of insufficient reasons. Keep in mind that, even if a conclusion seems obvious in light of the facts, it may not be obvious to the person being disciplined, the public, or the court. Written reasons must address not only the factual background underpinning a decision, but also the reasoning that led the decision maker to accept or reject a party’s arguments.
Does your conflict of interest policy clearly set out the steps that must be taken to properly disclose a conflict?
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