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Court of Appeal finds that disciplinary proceedings did not breach duty of care

The Court of Appeal has overturned a Judgment that an employer was liable in negligence and breached its duty of care in conducting disciplinary…

The Court of Appeal has overturned a Judgment that an employer was liable in negligence and breached its duty of care in conducting disciplinary proceedings against one of their employees.

With the introduction of Employment Tribunal fees, we believe we are seeing an increase in employees using other routes to bring claims outside traditional ET claims. In the case of Coventry University v Dr Mian a Judgment has been, reassuringly, overturned by the Court of Appeal who have emphasised the difficult test for allegations that employers are liable in negligence/breach of the duty of care for undertaking disciplinary proceedings.

The facts

Dr Mian was suspended and subject to her employer University's disciplinary proceedings, after a misleading reference provided to another University about a former employee was identified. The reference purported to have been written by Dr Mian. At the start of their investigation the University also identified three other word documents on Dr Mian’s computer’s hard drive, containing references about the same employee addressed to other Universities which were also misleading. Dr Mian denied that she had written the references and explained that those on her computer had been written by the subject of the references and sent to her. Following a full disciplinary procedure the allegations against were not upheld. 

After Dr Mian subsequently resigned and left the University’s employ, she brought a claim alleging that the University had acted in breach of contract and/or negligence which had caused her psychiatric injury. She based this claim on her employer commencing and pursuing disciplinary proceedings when she contended they should not have done so. 

Initially her claim succeeded. However, this has been overturned by the Court of Appeal, in a reassuring Judgment for employers. The Court found that the Judge had erroneously applied his own assessment on the strength of the disciplinary case. The correct test to apply was whether in all the circumstances, the decision to instigate disciplinary proceedings was “unreasonable” in the sense of being one which no reasonable employer would take. The Judgment emphasises that reasonable people can reach different judgments on the same question. It is also possible to be wrong in terms of what is found at the end of a process, without it having been negligent to have followed the process in the first place.

What does this mean for me?

When you decide to pursue disciplinary proceedings you do need to consider whether there is any evidence upon which such proceedings could be instigated. You also need to keep proceedings under review, in case the evidence supporting the original allegations does not stand up to scrutiny. However, the legal test for this type of claim is not whether a Court would have instigated proceedings; it is whether any other reasonable employer would have done so. 

We believe that we are seeing an increase in employees trying to bring claims outside the Employment Tribunal, including allegations of negligence and personal injury, probably because of the difficulties individuals now face in bringing an Employment Tribunal claim (and the costs of doing so). It is important that you remain aware of the risk of other claims when following your procedures, as well as considering traditional unfair dismissal and constructive dismissal claims.

Comment

Personal injury claims are subject to strict timescales and procedures. If you receive a letter informing you of the possibility of such a claim it is very important that you notify your insurers immediately. Failure to do so can jeopardise your ability to defend the claim. This case also illustrates the importance of being aware of the breadth of potential claims when considering employee issues. Please do speak to us if at all in doubt about the steps that you are taking. If you wish to, you are also able to ask your insurers to use Weightmans to defend claims, should you find yourself in that unfortunate position.