In the case of Coventry University v. Mian, the Court of Appeal had to decide whether an employer had breached its duty of care to one of its employees by pursuing disciplinary proceedings, and whether they should be liable for negligence.
In this case they decided that the employer had not.
Dr Mian was employed by Coventry University. She purportedly provided (on University headed notepaper) a reference for a former colleague, Dr Javed, which contained significant inaccuracies and misleading statements.
The University commenced an investigation and discovered that there were three draft references for Dr Javed on Dr Mian’s computer. At the investigation meeting, Dr Mian stated that she had provided a short reference for Dr Javed because she felt pressurised to do so. She had not however kept a copy of the reference she actually provided, which she maintained was quite different to the version that contained the inaccuracies and misleading statements.
At the conclusion of the investigation meeting, the University decided to pursue disciplinary proceedings. Dr Mian did not actually attend the disciplinary hearing because she was signed off work, although she did send written representations. In her absence, the disciplinary allegations against her were dismissed.
Dr Mian did not subsequently return to work and left to take up a post elsewhere. She brought proceedings arguing that the University should not have commenced the disciplinary proceedings without first undertaking further enquiries. Dr Mian also argued that the University had breached her contract and had breached its duty of care to her in pursuing disciplinary proceedings.
Dr Mian initially succeeded with her claim, although this was overturned on appeal. The Court of Appeal confirmed the University had not breached its duty of care by pursuing disciplinary proceedings. The Court confirmed it was wrong to focus on whether the allegations were true. Instead, the focus should have been on whether there were reasonable grounds for suspecting that the allegations were true and whether the decision to instigate disciplinary proceedings was a reasonable one.
Whether or not it is reasonable to subject an employee to a disciplinary procedure will vary from one case to the next. What is crucial however is the need for employers to undertake a thorough investigation. It is only following such thorough investigations that an employer is able to determine whether pursuing disciplinary proceedings is a reasonable and lawful step. An employer does not have to conduct a forensic investigation or prove any misconduct beyond doubt before pursuing disciplinary proceedings, it only needs to act reasonably and demonstrate a reasonable belief in any misconduct regardless of the eventual outcome.