Misuse of title

We carried out 476 investigations into misuse of the title “architect” during 2012, an increase of 85% over 2011. The majority of these were raised by architects and involved the use of the title “architect” on the internet.  In most instances, we were able to resolve them with the offending firm or individual once we made them fully aware of the law.  A significant source of the problem is that architectural companies, increasingly aware of the importance of effective search engine optimisation, embed terms such as “cheap architect” within their websites.  The problem is further compounded because these companies use external website developers, who often have no understanding of the restrictions surrounding the title “architect”, to build and design websites on their behalf.
During 2012, the Board reviewed its policy on title regulation to provide greater clarity to its approach, finally approving it in February 2013.  The policy is available on our website, and sets out two criteria for pursuing a prosecution in the magistrates’ courts:  there must be sufficient evidence, and it must be in the public interest to bring a prosecution.  In all other instances, we try to secure cooperation to cease using the title improperly through correspondence.

However, in those instances which are too serious or too persistent to be resolved through correspondence, we will consider prosecution.  2012 saw six such cases successfully prosecuted in the magistrates’ courts.  Five of the prosecutions were for directly using the term “architect” on a website or in promotional material.  The other related to the firm being found guilty of misusing the title in their internet meta-tags – the hidden computer code that internet search engines use to classify websites.  Such a finding was particularly important as there has been an unprecedented increase in the mislisting of non-architects by search engines, particularly Google.  This finding gives judicial backing to ARB’s view that using the internet in this way amounts to a misuse of title, and is a powerful public message to those non-architects who believe that such actions can be immune from legal action.

Consumer protection

Consumer protection is a cornerstone of ARB’s role, and regulating use of the title “architect” is an important aspect that we must take into account in delivering this role.  With the proliferation of websites advertising architectural services, regulating how the title is used has become more and more difficult for us.  We have therefore had to be more imaginative about how we can discharge our responsibility in this area.

One of the ways we seek to achieve this is our attendance at consumer shows, mentioned elsewhere in this report. This is where we have the opportunity to meet with the public on a one-to-one basis both to alert them to the Architects’ Register and explain to them that the title “architect” is a protected one that can only be used by people who are on the Architects’ Register.  We know from the research we have undertaken at these shows that by far the biggest majority of consumers would look for an architect on the internet.  In the interests of increasing consumer confidence in the profession, it is important that we do as much as we can to help consumers find a genuine architect when they are searching online.  By increasing consumer awareness of the Register, this will begin to have a greater impact on regulating the title than the old-style monitoring process.  Both have their place, but as our research shows, internet searches are by far the most favoured approach  and it is this aspect that we are focusing on and developing.  We have therefore enhanced our online Register by expanding the search options and creating an individual webpage register entry for every architect where they can add their contact details to allow clients and potential clients contact them quickly and easily.

We have, throughout the year, been encouraging architects to add their contact details (phone and fax numbers, and email and website addresses) to their personal register entry.  Not only does this help architects to differentiate themselves from unregistered practices and individuals working in the market, but more importantly, it also means that members of the public can make contact with an architect direct from the webpage, leaving it less likely that they will browse other websites or search engines where unregistered individuals may be unlawfully advertising their services as architects.  To further demonstrate their registered status to clients and potential clients, architects can also download a copy of ARB's logo to use on their websites and business stationery to highlight their registered status. 

Investigating complaints

In 2012, and following a period of public consultation, the Board decided to change the way that complaints were investigated.  Since its establishment in 1997, ARB’s investigation of complaints had been conducted by a committee – the Investigations Committee – made up of one architect and two lay Board members.  In response to concerns about increasing levels of work and meeting timescales for decisions, the membership was expanded in 2011 by the appointment of two external investigators, one lay and one architect.  Increasing the number on the Committee helped to reduce the time taken to reach decisions in the short term, but the conflicting time commitments of the Board members on the Committee meant that the Committee was once again failing to meet its target timescales. 

The Board recognises that complaints investigation is one of its highest profile activities and failing to deal effectively with the workload is one of the key risks that the Board faces.  Only 41% of decisions by the Investigations Committee were made within agreed timescale of 12 weeks, and while this was an improvement from the figure in 2011, more was needed to resolve the issue. 

In seeking a solution for reducing the time taken to investigate a complaint, the Board decided to remove Board members from the process of investigating complaints about architects and give the responsibility for this work to a pool of investigators.  This pool would comprise both architect and lay members, who were all specifically experienced and skilled in this type of work.  An open recruitment exercise was initiated, and we were encouraged by the large number of architects – over 500 – who expressed an interest in becoming involved in this area of our work.  At the end of the exercise, we were able to appoint four lay members and three architect members, ready to take up their positions when the new investigations structure came into being on 1 January 2013.  

The number of decisions being made at investigation stage is on a general increase for ARB, just as it is for all professional regulators.   It is therefore important to have a structure in place that minimises any delays in investigating allegations of unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, both in the interests of justice and because of the ongoing impact it has on the architect and complainant involved.

Professional Conduct Committee

When a complaint is referred to the PCC there is a full public hearing.   The PCC sits in panels of three, and the Chair is a solicitor nominated by the Law Society.  After listening to the representations of both parties, the PCC will weigh the evidence carefully before deciding whether the architect behaved in the way being claimed and whether this behaviour could be considered serious enough to amount to unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence, or both. The Committee can dismiss the case if it believes that the allegations have not been proved or, after considering any mitigation put forward by the architect, it can impose one of four penalties if it finds the architect guilty. These penalties are laid down in the Architects Act and are:

• a formal warning (a reprimand)
• a fine
• a suspension
• erasure of the architect’s name from the Register.

In line with Section 15(4) of the Architects Act and in keeping with the principles of transparency, we will usually issue a press release in a guilty finding and publish this, along with a transcript of the decision, on our website. However, if an architect is found “not guilty” by the Committee, we would only issue a press release at the express request of the architect concerned.  We would not otherwise give any publicity to such a case.  This is covered in Section 15(5) of the Act.

How to avoid complaints

Most complaints we receive about architects centre around the same few issues that are, in fact, relatively easy to avoid.  Dealing with complaints, both directly from a client or through ARB, can be a drain on the resources of any practice, and while the following suggestions can never guarantee the complete avoidance of disputes, they may well go some way to reducing the risk of problems arising.

1. Give proper terms of engagement
The cornerstone to any project is adequate terms of appointment. Missing or inadequate terms are by far and away the most common complaint ARB deals with about architects, and it also makes collecting fees from non-paying clients problematic.  At the very minimum, your practice should have a standard letter to give to all clients – even those with whom you have worked before – setting out the basics of the project, such as how it will be paid for and who will do the work.  By putting down in writing what is to be expected from all the parties involved in a project, you are ensuring that the scope for disputes to arise is greatly reduced.

2. Choose your work carefully
The prospect of turning work away might be a surprising notion, but embarking on a project which you cannot properly resource is a false economy.  Are your fees at an appropriate rate that you can commit sufficient time to the job? Does the client have unrealistic expectations as to what can be achieved on the budget? Does the client have a history of non-payment? All of these might be good reasons to decline work, as dealing with an unhappy client will have a disproportionately damaging effect on your business.

3. Manage your client’s expectations
Don’t assume that your client will know what you know, especially if you are dealing with a domestic project.  For example, many clients will not know that you cannot guarantee planning permission; the difference between planning drawings and construction drawings; or that architects do not supervise contractors – unless you tell them beforehand.

4. Manage your conflicts
Conflicts of interest, whether they are real or merely perceived, are often a source of complaint, particularly when a project is going wrong.  These can be managed by declaring any areas that may give rise to suspicion at the outset – most commonly where you have an existing relationship with a contractor. If you are offering both architectural and contracting services, it is vital that you explain in writing the natural conflict of interest that will occur.

5. Communicate
The key to avoiding disputes arising as a project progresses is effective, two-way communication. Understand and acknowledge the brief:  too often, architect and client assume that they are working to the same parameters when in practice they are not. A good place to start is with three questions:

What do you want?
When do you need it?
How much can you pay for it?

As the contract progresses, be sure to let your client know of any unforeseen changes to cost or schedule. An informed client is often a happy client.

6. Delegating responsibility
It is understandable that many practices will delegate certain tasks on a project to non-architects.  If this is the case, then you should explain to your client the reasons why this is a proportionate measure to take.  It is also important that you remember that delegating the task will not delegate your responsibility for it. Non-architects should be properly supervised in accordance with their own abilities and experience.

7. Professional indemnity insurance
It is not only vital to have appropriate cover for your work, but that you use it appropriately.  Remember that PI cover is there for your benefit, so in the event of a dispute notify your broker early and ask what assistance your insurers might offer you in finding a resolution.

8. Deal with complaints before they become disputes
Most complaints can easily be dealt with before they become entrenched disputes, by acknowledging your client’s concern and by indicating that you take it seriously.  It is never pleasant to receive a complaint about your work – especially when you think that it might be an unjustified criticism – but it is a fact of professional life that grievances will be raised on occasion.  Have a written complaints procedure and use it; it will help to avoid any personal antipathy from aggravating the situation.  If possible, have a colleague review the complaint to give you an objective assessment of the position.  Always inform your professional indemnity insurers and let clients know if there will be a delay in your response because you are taking advice.

Complaints 2012: facts and figures

(2011 figures in brackets)

Investigations Committee

No Further Action
25 (15)


Cautionary Advice
28 (22)


Refer to Professional Conduct Committee
27 (18)


Total number of decisions:
80 (55)


Professional Conduct Committee

6 (5)


Penalty Order
6 (9)


5 (2)


3 (0)


Not guilty
2 (0)


No sanction
1 (0)


Total number of decisions:
23 (16)


476 (348)


Company formations
307 (313)


Potential complaints
984 (658)


376 (238)


7 (81)


Total number of enquiries:
2150 (1638)


The figures for enquiries show a minor variance on previous years, although the variances are not material.  We are working to improve our data capture to eliminate these variances.