UK Law

Psychoanalysts threaten legal action against health regulator

Psychoanalysts who fear they will be banned by planned new regulation rules have threatened legal action against the UK health professions regulator.

Lawyers for six organisations representing around 1,500 Freudian psychoanalysts have written to the Health Professions Council (HPC) stating they will order a judicial review over the council’s “unlawful” failure to assess whether statutory regulation is necessary for psychoanalysts.

Psychoanalysis was devised by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s, and psychoanalysts are among the estimated 60,000 psychotherapists and counsellors that the government plans to regulate by national standards.

The aim is to protect the public from abusive therapists and create an independent complaints procedure. At present anyone – even if they have no qualifications – can advertise themselves as a psychotherapist or counsellor.

But London solicitors, Bindmans, has written to the HPC accusing it of an “ongoing” failure in its legal duty to assess the best form of regulation for Freudian and other psychodynamic psychotherapists, and which body should administer such regulation.

“The HPC has attempted to leap over several stages in the statutory process. This is not lawful,” wrote Bindmans in its letter to the HPC.

The letter warns of a judicial review “if the HPC does not remedy these serious deficiencies.”

But HPC spokesperson Ebony Gayle said it denies the allegations and “will vigorously defend its position.”

Psychoanalysts argue there is no evidence that statutory registration prevents abusive therapists.

“There is no solid research that conclusively demonstrates there’s a degree of malpractice by counsellors and psychotherapists that would warrant heavy-handed regulation by the HPC,” said Professor Andrew Samuels of the Alliance of Counselling and Psychotherapy against State Regulation.

“Nor is there either research or argument to show that such regulation lessens abuse. Doctors, for example, have been so regulated for many years, but shocking cases still occur regularly,” he said.

Psychoanalysts also fear skill “competencies” drafted by the HPC that all psychotherapists must meet will precipitate the end of British psychoanalysis.

The competencies are overly-medicalised and mechanistic, say psychoanalysts who argue analysis is often as much art as science.

“If you read the list of things we are supposed to be doing I will not be able to practice,” said Darian Leader, a founder the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research. “Psychoanalysis will effectively be banned.”

Ten psychoanalyst organisations have also published a hard-hitting 37-page report detailing their opposition to statutory regulation.

Called the Maresfield Report, it accuses the HPC of being overly-bureaucratic and slow in its handling of complaints by patients of other health professionals. It also accuses the HPC of “conspiring to lie” and “fabricating” documents over how it has failed to consult psychoanalysts.

Psychoanalysts say that the 7,000-member United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), for example, handles complaints more sensitively and with a better response rate than the HPC. Whereas HPC finds no case to answer in over 70% of complaints, UKCP finds no case to answer in 10%, states the report.

Psychoanalysts, who accept some form of regulation is needed, advocate a “disclosure” system whereby therapists would be required to provide details of their qualifications to the public and to a central register. Failure to do so would be a criminal offence. Therapists who sexually abuse patients can be prosecuted under criminal law, they argue.

More than 2,700 people have signed an online petition against HPC-registration of psychotherapists. Signatories include Princess Diana’s therapist Susie Orbach and novelist Will Self.

“The new regulations – which include 451 rules for the analytic session – would effectively make it impossible to practice psychoanalysis and many other forms of therapy in the way they have been practiced for the last hundred years,” states the petition.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the leading body for counsellors and psychotherapists with 32,000 members, is critical of the psychoanalysts’ position.

“The public expects regulation. If you tell any member of the public in the street that psychotherapy and counselling is not under statutory regulation, they will say that it is wrong.” said BACP’s spokesperson Phillip Hodson.

“They [some psychoanalysts] want to be their own sole regulator – the judge and jury on their own form of psychoanalysis. That’s not acceptable.”

Ms Gayle said: “We refute the suggestion that the HPC has failed to undertake a proper assessment of the regulatory needs of this field and any suggestion that the consultation process has been narrow, biased or dishonest.”

She denied psychoanalysts would be banned. “I would not say they would be banned. But [if not registered by the HPC] they will not be able to use the protected title of psychotherapist,” she said.

“When we set standards, we consult widely with stakeholders to ensure that the standards are set at an appropriate level for safe and effective practice and do not act as an unfair barrier to innovation or diversity.”

The HPC already regulates 14 professions, such as chiropodists and paramedics.

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