Responding to Complaints at the College of Psychologists of Ontario: What Psychologists Need to Know

Formal complaints against psychologists have the potential to be stressful. The College of Psychologists of Ontario (“CPO”) regulates psychologists, receives any complaints against them, and has the power to impose professional consequences. We have prepared this basic guide for responding to complaints at the CPO.

When psychologists are the subject of a complaint, they will receive notice from the CPO, and will generally have 30 days to provide a response. Psychologists will receive the complaint itself, which will be accompanied by their prior complaint history, if applicable. Following an investigation, a panel of the Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee (“ICRC”) will determine how to most appropriately dispose of the matter. Panels are comprised of two psychologists and one government appointed member of the public.

The CPO is generally required to address all formal complaints against psychologists. Psychologists are professionally obligated to cooperate with the complaint process, and may need to participate in interviews with an investigator for the CPO. Regardless of whether psychologists consider complaints worthwhile, they typically should prepare a response.

Formal complaints are not addressed through hearings, and will proceed by way of documentary review and exchange. Psychologists typically do not make oral submissions and can only respond in writing. As psychologists cannot explain the care they provided in person, their written response should address each of the complainant’s concerns in a comprehensive manner.

The time, effort, and stress of preparing a response to allegations of professional misconduct has the potential to be challenging for psychologists. Retaining legal counsel who has experience dealing with professional regulatory bodies often will assist psychologists through this experience. A lawyer will typically assume the responsibility of submitting a psychologist’s response, and will become the primary point of contact with the CPO.

It is prudent for psychologists drafting a response to consider any unique aspects of their case, including when they provided the care, the complexity of the care, and the possibility of a civil lawsuit. In our experience, it is often helpful to present the event as a chronological account.

Psychologists should enclose patient charts and any other relevant records or information with their finalized response to the CPO. Regardless of its ultimate disposition on a specific complaint, the ICRC may evaluate a psychologist’s records. As inadequate recordkeeping is an independent act of professional misconduct, psychologists should always maintain their records in compliance with the Psychology Act, 1991 guidelines. 

An investigator assigned to a psychologist’s case will determine if any further investigation is required, and will enclose all of their findings in a report to the ICRC. The ICRC will receive and review a psychologist’s file, and may do any of the following: take no further action; caution a psychologist in person before the ICRC; inquire into a psychologist’s professional capacity; refer the matter to the Discipline Committee; or take any other appropriate action, including ordering further investigation. Apart from situations in which psychologists are referred to discipline or to the Fitness to Practice Committee, the ICRC will typically supply written reasons for its decisions. 

Findings at the CPO are becoming increasingly transparent, with details of the following ICRC dispositions now posted on the Public Register: Specified Continuing Education or Remediation Programs (“SCERP”); cautions; undertakings; and referrals to discipline. This information will be available on a psychologist’s public profile. 

Before the ICRC is ready to make a disposition in a psychologist’s case, it may impose an interim order. Interim orders are often available for complaints of a more serious nature, where a psychologist’s alleged conduct exposes or is likely to expose their patients to harm or injury. Interim orders impose terms, limitations, or conditions on a psychologist’s certificate of registration, and may even take the form of licence suspension. An interim order can last for the entirety of an investigation. The Registrar may also appoint a special investigator to investigate serious complaints against psychologists. Under section 75 of the Health Professions Procedural Code, this investigator has much broader powers than in the standard process.

Psychologists and complainants are generally entitled to request a review of the ICRC’s decision. Reviews occur before the Health Professions Appeal and Review Board (“HPARB”), which will consider whether the CPO’s investigation was adequate and whether the ICRC’s decision was reasonable. An HPARB panel will base its review of a psychologist’s file on the documents and material that were available to the ICRC. These materials are also typically provided to psychologists and complainants.

Complaints at the CPO can happen to any psychologist, and it is important to work through the process. Psychologists may find it worthwhile to retain legal counsel, as this can provide assistance when responding to the CPO and dealing with any other issues. A complaint can result in professional consequences and public exposure, so psychologists should respond accordingly.