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Professional and ethical boundaries in a counselling relationship (03HDC16962)
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(03HDC16962, 14 March 2006)
School counsellor ~ Secondary school ~ Response to pupil
with drug, alcohol and self-harming problems ~ Professional
boundaries ~ Vicarious liability ~ Rights 2, 4(1), 4(2)
A woman complained about a school counsellor who provided
counselling and support to her teenage daughter. The daughter was
struggling with complex issues, including deliberate self-harm,
drug and alcohol abuse, family relationships and difficulties with
The counsellor took on issues that she did not have the skills
or expertise to manage. She did not set clear boundaries around the
professional relationship and ultimately it became a relationship
of dependency. This later developed into an intense personal
relationship between the counsellor and the student whereby they
made plans to move to a new area together.
It was held that the counsellor's actions were unprofessional
and unethical, and in breach of Rights 2, 4(1) and
4(2). Additionally, because the Head of Department and school
principal were aware of the inappropriate relationship between the
counsellor and the pupil, and did not intervene, the school was
found to be vicariously liable for the counsellor's actions.
The school counsellor was referred to the Director of
Proceedings, who issued proceedings in the Human Rights Review
Tribunal seeking remedies on behalf of the daughter. Following the
counsellor's admission that a sexual relationship had developed out
of the counselling relationship, the Tribunal made the following
orders by consent:
1. A declaration that the actions of the counsellor
were in breach of Right 2 of the Code in that she failed to provide
healthcare services that were free from sexual exploitation.
2. Damages of $25,000 to be paid to the consumer for
humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
3. Damages of $10,000 to be paid to the consumer for
the flagrant disregard of her rights.
4. Costs of $5,000 to be paid to the Director of
5. Prohibition on publication of the consumer's
This case highlights the fact that people who approach
counsellors for counselling services are often vulnerable.
Counsellors need to take extreme care to establish the boundaries
of the new relationship at the outset. If any doubt is raised about
the counsellor's ability to counsel the client within acceptable
professional boundaries, a referral should be made. The consumer's
trust of a counsellor is paramount and must not be exploited.