Springhouse Solicitors

Fairness of dismissal at university, and involvement of legal and HR

We report on a case concerning the dismissal for gross misconduct of an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, for failing to disclose a relationship he had had with one of his students.

Why did the Employment Appeal Tribunal say that his dismissal was potentially unfair?

Background

Universities have a special status because they were established by Royal Charter in 1926. The dismissal of academic staff is governed by University Statutes. These dictate that the university must have made the dismissal for particular reasons, which include “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”.

In this case, the Professor Dr Dronsfield admitted the relationship with his student, which he said had amounted to a one-off incident which was not of his instigation. He said he had been asked by the student not to make any disclosure, and that the event had not affected his supervision and assessment of the individual.

The Employment Tribunal had focussed on the test for unfair dismissal in the Employment Rights Act 1996, and the general concept of gross misconduct, and had decided that the dismissal was not unfair.

However, in failing to focus on the wording of the University Statute and whether or not Dr Dronsfield’s activities had been “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” by modern standards, they had taken the wrong approach. The EAT said that theTribunal’s finding that there had been no unfair dismissal would therefore need to be reconsidered by a fresh Tribunal in light of this.

Another interesting point arose in this case, because HR and the legal team at the University had been heavily involved in editing the investigation report. On one view, the changes made no material difference, but the investigating officer had never been asked whether the deletions represented a change in opinion or not, and this too rendered the dismissal potentially unfair.

The EAT confirmed its earlier decision in Ramphal that HR’s input should be limited to matters of law and procedure, and not to issues of culpability.

Implications

This case acts as a warning that the yardsticks for unfair dismissal will be different at universities.

It is also an important reminder that investigation reports prepared for disciplinary enquiries must represent the views of the investigating officer. Any amendments by any third parties such as HR or legal advisers will need to be explained, and may in certain circumstances render the report unusable.