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Updated 7 July 2016
Please note that the term ‘veterinarian’ replaces ‘veterinary surgeon’ in this chapter of Supporting Guidance. This is because ‘veterinarian’ is commonly used in the context of European and international trade certification and has been used here for consistency.
21.1 Veterinarians are frequently required to sign certificates as part of their day to day professional duties. Some examples include signing pet or equine passports, fitness to travel certificates, fitness to breed certificates or equine pre-purchase examination (PPE) certificates.
21.2 Some veterinarians may also work as Official Veterinarians (OVs). These are practitioners, who are authorised by the UK Government to carry out certain duties, including certification responsibilities. Veterinarians in salaried employment of the UK Government, mainly Defra and its executive agencies (principally the Animal and Plant Health Agency – APHA) and the devolved administrations are also considered OVs. OVs may be asked to sign certificates relating to live animals or products of animal origin (for example, meat and dairy products, animal by-products, genetic material).
21.3 Veterinary certification plays a significant role in the control of animal health and welfare, the continuity of European and international trade and the maintenance of public health. Veterinarians have a professional responsibility to ensure the integrity of veterinary certification. The simple act of signing their names on documents should be approached with care and accuracy.
21.4 Veterinarians must certify facts and opinions honestly and with due care, taking into account the 10 Principles of Certification set out below. They should not sign certificates which they know or ought to know are untrue, misleading or inaccurate. This applies equally to hand-written, printed and electronic certificates.
21.5 Veterinarians should also familiarise themselves with the form of certificate they are being asked to sign and any accompanying Notes for Guidance, instructions or advice from the relevant Competent Authority.
21.6 This chapter of Supporting Guidance is intended to help veterinarians understand and meet their professional responsibilities in the context of certification.
What is a certificate?
21.7 A certificate is a written statement made with authority; the authority in this case coming from the veterinarian’s professional status.
21.8 It should be noted that not all certificates contain the word ‘certificate’. Some documents (for example, forms, declarations, insurance claims, witness statements and self-certification documents) may involve the same level of responsibility even if they do not contain the word ‘certificate’.
The 10 Principles of Certification (formerly 12 Principles)
21.9 The 10 Principles of Certification provide the foundation of certification for all those who draft or prepare, use or sign veterinary certificates. In short, the principles represent best practice in veterinary certification. From time to time, veterinarians may be presented with certificates that do not conform to all of the principles. Veterinary surgeons should read paragraphs 21.34 to 21.35 below for more information on dealing with these types of certificates.
21.10 The current 10 Principles have replaced the 12 Principles of Certification (previously drafted by the RCVS, BVA and Defra) in order to better reflect modern certification practice.
21.11 The 10 Principles are set out in bold below. These are followed by additional guidance on how the principles can be applied in practice.
The 10 Principles of Certification
A veterinarian should certify only those matters which:
a) are within his or her own knowledge;
b) can be ascertained by him or her personally; or
c) are the subject of supporting evidence from an authorised veterinarian who has personal knowledge of the matters in question.
In some circumstances, a certificate or the accompanying Notes for Guidance may allow a veterinarian to attest matters on the basis of a declaration by another person e.g. the exporter or their agent, a farmer, transporter, animal health officer or food business operators.
Matters not within the knowledge of a veterinarian and not the subject of supporting evidence but known to other persons, e.g. the farmer or transporter as above, should be the subject of a declaration by those persons only.
The form of declaration may vary from a simple signed statement to a sworn affidavit depending on the significance of what is being certified and the requirements of the Competent Authority.
Veterinarians should retain copies of any declarations and make a record of any checks or procedures undertaken to corroborate these declarations, where appropriate.
Veterinarians should not issue a certificate that might raise questions of a possible conflict of interest.
Generally speaking, conflicts of interest should be avoided. Veterinarians signing certificates should not allow commercial, financial or other pressures to compromise their impartiality.
In the context of Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES) Intra Trade Animal Health Certificates (ITAHCs), veterinarians should not certify where they own or part own either a business producing a commodity for export or the commodity to be exported, or are a salaried employee of the business. Veterinarians should contact APHA for further advice on conflicts in this context.
Veterinarians should consider the potential conflict of interest and make their own decision on whether a conflict exists. They may also wish to seek advice from the RCVS or the Competent Authority. Veterinarians should make a record of any potential conflict of interest and the advice received.
A veterinarian should only sign certificates that are written in a language they understand.
In some cases, certificates may be accompanied by an official translation of the certificate into a language of the country of ultimate destination. Translated certificates are only a requirement if specifically requested by the country of destination. In the case of a Third Country, any agreed certificates tend to be bilingual. In the case of ITAHCs, the TRACES system allows for the equivalent in the language of the Member State of destination to be provided. Whatever the case, veterinarians should comply with any official Notes for Guidance accompanying the certificate or advice from the Competent Authority on this issue.
A veterinarian should not certify that there has been compliance with the law of another country or jurisdiction unless the provisions of that law are set out clearly on the certificate or have been provided to them by the Competent Authority in writing.
Veterinarians should read and understand any Notes for Guidance or supporting material issued by the Competent Authority. If there is any ambiguity, the veterinarian should seek advice from the Competent Authority on how to proceed.
A veterinarian should only sign original certificates. Where there is a legal or official requirement for a certified copy or duplicate (marked as such) these can be provided.
Veterinarians may need to provide certified copies or duplicates where originals have been damaged or lost (e.g. where damage has occurred during transit). Where a copy or replacement is provided or retained it must be clearly marked COPY or DUPLICATE or REPLACEMENT, as appropriate and in accordance with any Notes for Guidance or advice from the Competent Authority. Where practicable the veterinarian should ensure that the certificate being replaced is surrendered, withdrawn or destroyed (if requested) or clearly identified as to its revised status, as appropriate and in accordance with any Notes for Guidance or advice from the Competent Authority.
Where veterinarians become aware that the certificate should not have been issued or is no longer true, they must withdraw or cancel the certificate, identify the copies accordingly, and inform the affected parties of their action as soon as reasonably practicable.
Copies should also be provided to the Competent Authority.
When signing a certificate, a veterinarian should ensure that:
a) the certificate contains no deletions or alterations, other than those which are indicated on the certificate to be permissible, and subject to such changes being initialled and stamped by the certifying veterinarian;
b) no section of the certificate is left incomplete;
c) the certificate includes not only their signature but also, in clear lettering, their name, qualifications and address and (where appropriate) their official or practice stamps;
d) the certificate includes the date on which the certificate was signed and issued and (where appropriate) the time for which the certificate will remain valid.
Veterinarians should complete certificates with care and accuracy and in a manner and using a means which does not lend itself to alteration, or additions, by a second party after the certificate has been issued. It is recognised that mistakes on certificates can occur and these should be rectified, as permissible, as soon as they are identified.
Veterinarians might also give consideration to using their RCVS membership number on the certificate. This provides an easy means of identifying the certifying veterinarian and their contact details should these be required.
Incomplete sections should be avoided so the certificate cannot be subsequently completed by someone other than the certifying veterinarian.
In the absence of procedures such as embossing, it remains advisable for manuscript insertions to be completed in coloured ink rather than black.
Generally, manuscript insertions and any pre-printed list of options, which can be deleted in a certificate, do not have to be initialled, stamped, and/or dated unless the Notes for Guidance request this. Veterinarians should always refer to the Notes for Guidance or Competent Authority if there is any ambiguity.
Veterinarians must also comply with any Notes for Guidance from the Competent Authority on identification as there may be specific advice on how identification should be carried out and recorded.
Certificates should be written in simple terms which are easy to understand.
Certificates should be:
a) clear and concise;
b) integrated, whole and indivisible;
c) given a unique identifier; and
d) copied and retained with all relevant records.
Certificates that include more than one page may need to be ‘fan stamped’ with a unique identifier on each page in order to create a tamper proof composite document. Veterinarians should comply with any Notes for Guidance or supporting material issued by the Competent Authority about such requirements.
Veterinarians should retain copies of certificates for their own records and provide copies to the Competent Authority, as required.
Certificates should not use words or phrases which are capable of more than one interpretation.
Certificates should clearly identify the subject being certified.
There are some exceptions to this general rule, specifically cases where it is impractical to identify the subject (for example, day old chicks). Veterinarians must also comply with any Notes for Guidance from the Competent Authority on identification as there may be specific advice on how identification should be carried out and recorded. (See 21.30 to 21.33 below for general advice on identification of animals).
Official certification for export of live animals and animal products
21.12 Veterinarians involved with official certification should familiarise themselves with all regulatory requirements, instructions and guidelines pertaining to the particular category of official assurance being dealt with. They should read and understand any supporting explanatory material and check carefully for any ambiguity or incompatibility with the Competent Authority. Veterinarians should also ensure they have the necessary prior authority and knowledge before issuing any particular category of official assurances.
21.13 Where appropriate Notes for Guidance should be provided to the certifying veterinarian by the Competent Authority indicating the extent of the enquiries he or she is expected to make; the examinations he or she is required to carry out; or to clarify any details of the certificate which may require further interpretation. Some certificates are self-explanatory but Export Health Certificates (EHCs), Intra Trade Animal Health Certificates (ITAHCs) and most Third Country certificates are highly complex and need further guidance to allow veterinarians to sign these. The RCVS strongly encourages Competent Authorities to provide clear Notes for Guidance to certifying veterinarians, where appropriate.
21.14 In cases where further advice or clarification is sought, veterinarians should record, in writing, the information received, the date and time it is received and the name and details of the official giving the advice. Veterinarians should expect their own queries to be similarly recorded. They may request and expect to receive written confirmation of the guidance given to them.
21.15 Guidance issued by the Competent Authority for the completion of these certificates should be scrupulously followed. This might include guidance on important areas such as how to deal with errors, deletions, corrections or even copy or replacement certificates. When problems are identified, Defra or APHA (or the equivalent body in the devolved administrations) should be consulted and, if not then resolved, the advice of the RCVS should be sought.
21.16 In some cases, advice from the Competent Authority may not be available (e.g. during holiday periods or out of hours). In such emergency situations veterinarians may wish to consult an experienced colleague for advice and make a note of the discussion. Veterinarians should also comply with any practice policies on seeking external advice.
21.17 A veterinarian who acts in an official capacity must only use an official stamp issued to him or her on official certificates issued or approved by the Competent Authority.
Recognition of the role of paraprofessionals in assisting official certification
21.18 In certain limited situations veterinarians may rely on third party attestations by authorised persons. Generally there will be express provision for this in legislation. By way of an example, current EU legislation which specifies the official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption allows the use of trained official auxiliaries to carry out the veterinary checks under the supervision of the OV in certain situations. An ‘official auxiliary’ means a person qualified, in accordance with the Regulations, to act in such a capacity, appointed by the Competent Authority and working under the authority and responsibility of an OV. In some legislation the term “veterinary checks” does not necessarily mean that all the checks must be carried out by an OV.
21.19 Veterinarians should comply with relevant legislation in the jurisdiction(s) in which they practise and be familiar with any special rules or requirements of the particular industry in which they practise. Veterinarians should also comply with any guidance from the Competent Authority when certifying on the basis of checks carried out by paraprofessionals.
Remote certification of low risk products by Official Veterinarians (OVs)
21.20 In some limited circumstances as agreed by the Competent Authority it may be appropriate for veterinarians to certify low risk products remotely based on knowledge of the production plants and working processes. Requirements for remote certification will need to be agreed with the Competent Authority and veterinarians should be familiar with these requirements before proceeding.
21.21 In these limited cases, where the product is the result of an industrial process, and the OV inspects the production establishment periodically and checks the quality control systems that are in place, and the certificate does not require the OV to be present at the time of loading, then the consignment could be certified in advance of loading. In order for this to happen certain strict conditions should be met such as:
a) there is no requirement in the certificate for sealing or identification of transport;
b) the consignment is identified by marks and all necessary tests have been completed satisfactorily;
c) the certificate describes the consignment such that substitution with product, which had not been inspected, would not be possible;
d) there are accurate, up-to-date and accessible records from audited systems which can be used to confirm that the consignment complies with the certification requirements; and
e) the certifying veterinarian carries out regular audits of the production plant, is familiar with its quality assurance systems and is confident to rely on records.
21.22 Under these circumstances, veterinarians would be able to judge whether it is necessary to personally inspect consignments at the time of certification, but in doing so must be in a position to provide a clear account of the factors which led them to that decision. If the veterinarian is not present at the time of loading then it would be the responsibility of the exporter to ensure that the correct products are loaded into the means of transport.
21.23 Veterinarians should always seek advice from the Competent Authority before considering remote certification as this will not be acceptable in all cases.
21.24 The RCVS considers electronic veterinary certificates are acceptable, subject to sufficient safeguards and security.
21.25 An example of a system that has been accepted by the RCVS is TRACES (Trade Control and Expert System), an EU-wide electronic certification and notification system that is being phased in for the provision of export health certificates and supporting documents for intra-Community trade in certain circumstances; and currently used by DEFRA. Other examples might include electronic signatures on pre-purchase examination or other certificates.
21.26 Veterinarians asked to complete any form of electronic certification (including the use of electronic signatures) should consider whether there are sufficient controls and security (e.g. system encryption, passwords, etc) to avoid unauthorised access to and use of the veterinarian’s electronic identity. Veterinarians should also consider whether the certificate is unalterable and lockable to avoid unauthorised modification or manipulation once it has been signed. In most cases, veterinarians will need to seek advice from those with relevant knowledge to give assurances about how to meet these requirements. The RCVS cannot provide this type of technical advice.
21.27 For advice on the deployment of digital signatures within the TRACES or any other export certification system, veterinarians should contact the Specialist Service Centre for International Trade – Carlisle. It is essential that veterinarians do not consider using electronic signatures or producing electronic versions of official certificates without first discussing the implications with the Competent Authority.
21.28 Veterinarians should keep a copy of the completed certificate to ensure that a trail of document ‘originals’ can be maintained, particularly if the document is likely to pass through a sequence of electronic ‘hands’.
21.29 Veterinarians engaged in providing certification or other formal correspondence solely through electronic means should familiarise themselves with the relevant provisions of the UK legislation: the Electronic Communications Act 2000 and associated regulations. Veterinarians seeking further information on the regulations should contact the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) on 020 7215 5000 or by e-mailing email@example.com.
Identifying animals on certificates
21.30 If an alleged identification mark is not legible at the time of inspection, no certificate should be issued until the animal has been re-marked or otherwise adequately identified.
21.31 When there is no identification mark, the use of the animal's name alone is inadequate. If possible, the identification should be made more certain by the owner inserting a declaration identifying the animal, so that the veterinarian can refer to it as 'as described'. Age, colour, sex, marking and breed may also be used.
21.32 The owner's name must always be inserted. (In the case, for example, of litters of unsold puppies this will be the name of the breeder or the seller.)
21.33 Where microchipping, tattooing or any other form of permanent identification has been applied it should be referred to in any certificate of identification.
How to deal with certificates that do not conform to the 10 Principles
Remembering the four ‘C’s of Certification
21.34 Veterinarians may be presented with certificates that do not conform to all of the 10 Principles. In such cases the RCVS strongly advises that veterinarians should:
a) Scrutinise the document, whatever its title, before adding their signature to this
b) Be clear as to whom they are responsible in exercising their authority when they sign the document
a) Read and understand any explanatory supporting material
b) Check carefully for any ambiguity which should be clarified with whoever has issued the certificate
a) Be sure that they attest only to what to the best of their knowledge and belief is true
b) Do not attest to future events
c) Take great care when attesting to what others have declared or asserted
(Veterinarians may attest to what another veterinarian has certified. They may also attest to the fact that a declaration or assertion has been made by another person without attesting to its validity).
If they have gone further in what they have attested, veterinarians must consider what their defence would be if challenged, and keep appropriate written records made at the time of the decision to sign. For example, if challenged under the Animal Health Act 1981 (as amended) with false certification could they show (in the words of that Act):
a) that he did not know of that falsity and that he could not with reasonable diligence have obtained knowledge of it;
b) that the commission of the offence was due to a mistake or to reliance on information supplied to him or to the act or default of another person, an accident or some other cause beyond his control; and
c) that he took all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to avoid the commission of such an offence by himself or any person under his control.
21.35 When faced with a certificate that does not conform to the 10 Principles, veterinarians should take a professional, reasonable and pragmatic approach, bearing in mind the general advice above.
21.36 On occasion veterinarians may be asked to attest ‘to the best of their knowledge and belief’. In these circumstances, veterinarians should exercise caution and attest only to what to the best of their knowledge and belief is true. They should not attest to future events and they should take great care when attesting to what others have declared or asserted, bearing in mind the ’Four Cs’ outlined in paragraph 21.34 to 21.35 above.
Storage and retention of certificates
21.37 The RCVS does not specify for how long copies of certificates, declarations or clinical records should be retained. For official certificates, veterinarians should follow any guidance from the Competent Authority. In the event of future disputes, veterinarians should also comply with any professional indemnity policy conditions relating to retention of records.
Vaccination record cards
21.38 Veterinarians should take care when completing vaccination record cards even though they are generally regarded as part of the clinical records and not a certificate. This applies whether the record cards are in paper or electronic format. There is more detailed guidance on the professional responsibilities associated with completing record cards in Supporting Guidance Chapter 13 ‘Clinical and client records’.
Maintaining the integrity of veterinary certification
21.39 Misleading, incomplete, inaccurate, or untrue certification reflects adversely on the veterinarian signing and calls his or her professional integrity into question. This also impacts adversely on the general reputation of the veterinary profession. Certification of this nature may also expose the veterinarian to complaints and cases may come before the RCVS Disciplinary Committee arising from allegations of false or dishonest certification.
21.40 There are four main hazards for veterinary surgeons when ’certifying‘ in the wider sense:
a) Negligence: a breach of the duty owed to a relevant party with consequent damage. Negligence may arise from a failure to disclose all of the material facts or supplying incorrect information. The consequence may be civil court proceedings.
b) Criminal offences: criminal offences may be committed under trade descriptions legislation, legislation controlling animal exports and by aiding and abetting a third party. They may include fraud, or knowingly or recklessly supplying false information. Any conviction brought to the notice of the RCVS may be considered in relation to the fitness of the veterinarian to practise.
c) Professional misconduct: even if no criminal charges are brought, an aggrieved party or enforcement authority may make a formal complaint to the RCVS. Any action by a veterinarian which brings the integrity of veterinary certification into disrepute is considered seriously by the RCVS. If the complaint is judged to be justified, penalties may follow.
d) Loss of OV status: misleading, incomplete, inaccurate, or untrue certification in the context of official work can adversely affect animal welfare and public health; result in the spread of disease; result in financial loss to clients and exporters; and, potentially cause inter-Governmental difficulties. Veterinarians may therefore put their status as an OV at risk if they do not follow certification compliance requirements set out by the relevant Competent Authority.