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Do employers owe a duty of care to employees when bringing disciplinary proceedings?

Posted by TonyBrownEmploymentSolicitor on October 20, 2014

Is an employee entitled to compensation if their employer initiates proceedings without undertaking a proper enquiry?

Possibly, but not on the facts of the next case. 

The Claimant in that case was a senior lecturer at Coventry University. She was accused of providing a reference to Greenwich University about a former colleague that was misleading and inaccurate and overstated the colleague's qualities and qualifications.

In line with the University’s policy, a search of the Claimant’s computer was carried which revealed 3 other draft references for the former colleague which were similar to the Greenwich reference. The Claimant denied writing any of the references. Her explanation was that she had agreed to be a referee for her former colleague who had provided references he would like her to produce. She refused to use them because she believed that the statements he made in his drafts were untrue. Instead, she wrote her own references but did not save them on her computer.

The University was not satisfied with the Claimant’s explanation and started disciplinary proceedings against her for alleged complicity in the preparation of false and misleading employment references.

In fact, the allegation against the Claimant was dismissed after a disciplinary hearing. However, the Claimant did not return to work and brought proceedings alleging breach of contract and/or negligence in bringing disciplinary proceedings leading to personal injury. The trial judge gave judgment for the Claimant.

Allowing the University’s appeal, the Court of Appeal said that that the judge had failed to apply the correct test to the decision to commence disciplinary proceedings which was whether the decision was "unreasonable" in the sense that it was outside the range of reasonable decisions open to an employer in the circumstances. This required an objective assessment and one that was not to be made with the benefit of hindsight.

Here the Judge had merged the questions of whether it was reasonable for the University to institute disciplinary proceedings and whether, in the end, the allegation against the Claimant was true. The decision of the trial judge was reversed and the Court of Appeal ruled that the University was not negligent to bring disciplinary proceedings against the Claimant.

This will be a welcome decision for employers who bring disciplinary proceedings in good faith. It still leaves employers open to the challenge that the decision to launch disciplinary action was unreasonable, in the sense that it was outside the range of reasonable decisions open to an employer but that assessment should not be made with the benefit of hindsight.

In this case, although the Claimant was acquitted of the allegation at the disciplinary hearing, the decision to initiate disciplinary proceedings was a reasonable one on the facts.