Given that by law architects in Australia need to be registered in a given state or territory if they legally wish to either use the title ‘architect’ or offer their services to the public as an architect in the jurisdiction in question, it's crucial to maintain one’s registration.

One way through which registration can be cancelled or suspended is where the architect in question has a formal complaint lodged against them. Accordingly, it is important to understand what can lead to a complaint, how the complaints process works and what architects can do to avoid having a complaint filed against them.

At the outset, it should be acknowledged that the incidence of formal complaints against architects is extremely low. Whereas around 10 per cent of lawyers in NSW receive a complaint against them on an annual basis, Registrar of the NSW Architects Registration Board Registrar Tim Horton says, the equivalent for architects is 0.2 per cent.

In Victoria, Adrian Magee, head of compliance at the Architects Registration Board of Victoria, says the board on average receives around 10 formal complaints from a register which contains around 3,500 architects. In NSW, which had 4,672 registered architects as at June 30, 2015 (although 832 of these were non-practising), Horton says complaint numbers generally average between seven and 10 per year, though the Board received 57 enquiries last year from a less formal enquiry based mechanism which it has adopted as an alternative form of resolution.

Horton and Magee both say complaints arise primarily from individual residential customers and that the most common form of complaint involves cost overruns. This occurs where the architect designs to a budget and it is subsequently found when the project goes out for tender that in fact the cost substantially exceeded expectations – a scenario which leaves the client having paid for a design which in fact could not be delivered within the allowed budget.

Clients, Magee said, expect their architect to be able to create designs which are reasonably able to be delivered within budget. Where budgets are not realistic, he says, clients expect architects to advise them of this.

Speaking of NSW and in particular Sydney, Horton says problems are occurring whereby favourable market conditions are enabling tradespeople and builders to be more selective in the type of work they take on and are generating upward pressure on trade prices and tender prices. In one case about which he is aware, Horton says the client talked to their architect about a $500,000 renovation which the architect duly advised could not be delivered for less than around $800,000. When tenders came in, however, the final price was $1.4 million.

In terms of actual complaints processes, basic principles are generally similar across jurisdictions but differences remain at the detailed level.

In New South Wales, Horton says architects should allow around four to six months for the process to take place. Once a complaint is received, it is forwarded to the architect who is given 28 days to respond. This response is circled back to the complainant who is given 14 days to respond and make further comments or submissions before it finally goes back to the architect for a final submission.

At this point, the complaint will come back to the board, who will make a call as to whether or not a complaints committee needs to be formed. After that, a leading member of the board will chair a committee of three who will consider all of the submissions. The Act is extremely broad in how what the committee is able to do in terms of seeking interviews or further submissions in order to satisfy itself in whatever manner it chooses.

After that, the committee will issue a draft determination. Where the architect is essentially found ‘guilty’ they are then given a further 28 days in which to make submissions in relation to the penalties which can be imposed, after which time the decision will be finalised.

In terms of penalties, there are a couple of options. An architect in New South Wales can be found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct. In the latter case, the board has no option but to refer them up to the NSW Civil Administrative Tribunal. If on the other hand, they are found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct, they can be dealt with by the board. Penalties can include fines of up to $20,000, requirements for training (for instance, doing a financial management course), limits or constraints on their registration (which prevent them from practising in certain ways) or in extreme cases, removal from the register.

In NSW’s case, Horton said one initiative which is working well entails setting up an alternative form of dispute resolution which revolves around informal enquiries as opposed to the formal complaints process. Last year, he said, more than 50 cases of concern had been resolved through this process in a manner which was faster, and less adversarial in nature.

In Victoria, Magee says architects need to understand that it is a formal process which is largely document based and relates largely to the architect’s professional conduct. When lodging complaints, complainants must complete a specific form and supply copies of any documents which are relevant to their areas of complaint, with all of the documents together making up the complainant’s submission. The architect is then notified of the complaint, provided with a copy of the submission and given an opportunity to respond to the Board within a month.

These submissions are reviewed by two board members who report to the board, which subsequently makes a decision about whether or not to refer a professional conduct inquiry to an external body known as the Architects Tribunal. Where that happens, there is a notice of enquiry that contains the specific allegations. Where the Tribunal finds that any of these are in fact proven, it is able to make determinations, which can range from cautions or reprimands through to suspension or cancellation.

When it comes to avoiding complaints, Horton says it is important for architects to ensure that their client/architect agreement meets the requirements outlined in the Architects Code of Professional Conduct and contains each of the elements outlined in Section 7 of the Code. Casual or verbal agreements which the board sometimes came across were inadequate and unacceptable, he said.

Second, he said it is important for architects to maintain written communication with clients throughout the multi-year duration of the project. A number of issues which the board had come across involved cases whereby changes had been made during the course of the project without adequate documentary evidence of these being communicated to the client, who often still believed that they were getting what was originally agreed upon.

Magee says it is important to have a complete understanding of the Victorian Architects Code of Professional Conduct along with the information on the Board’s web site surrounding disciplinary procedures and how these work. It was also important to undertake relevant CPD requirements and to remain current in their understanding of consumer led practice, he said. Clear and effective communication with clients was critical, and it was important for architects to be able to lead clients in terms of understanding what to expect and what is involved at various stages of the process.

Finally, Magee said it is advisable to give careful thought and consideration before entering into engagements with friends or relations. This seems to cause more problems than usual in terms of misunderstandings and things going wrong, he said.

“Obviously, if there are common sense parameters, it would not be something that you would rule out,” Magee said.

“But people need to be aware that it might seem to be an attractive thing to do something for your relatives but if things go wrong, the consequences can be unpleasant.”

On a rare occasion, architects might find themselves the subject of complaints to state registration boards.

By adopting a few simple strategies, this need not cost them their legal right to identify themselves as an architect.