Avoiding ‘knee jerk’ suspensions

Was a school right to suspend a teacher who dragged a child across a classroom floor?

Yes, ruled the Court of Appeal, overturning a High Court decision that the school’s action in suspending the teacher was a “knee jerk” reaction to an allegation that she had used force against the child and breached the implied duty of trust and confidence.

Legal principles

In cases of suspected misconduct, an employer’s first instinct is often to suspend the employee pending the outcome of a disciplinary procedure. However, in recent cases the courts have warned that suspension should not be an automatic reaction to alleged misconduct. Unreasonable suspensions could amount to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, entitling the employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal. This was the view taken by the High Court in the next case, although the Court of Appeal disagreed.

Facts

The Claimant was employed as a primary school teacher, teaching five- and six-year-old children, but in her first few weeks three incidents took place involving the use of force towards two children who exhibited very challenging behaviour. It was alleged that the Claimant had used unreasonable force against these children, including two incidents when she had dragged them across the classroom floor.

The Claimant was informed that she was being suspended. The letter given to the Claimant stated that suspension was a neutral act and not a disciplinary sanction and that the purpose of it was to allow an investigation into the incidents to be conducted fairly.

The Claimant’s response to being suspended was to resign.

Claim

The Claimant alleged that the school had breached the implied term of trust and confidence by suspending her. Her claim was brought as a breach of contract claim in the County Court because she had insufficient service to bring a claim in the employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.

The County Court rejected the Claimant’s claim for breach of contract, finding that the school was “bound” to suspend her given the nature of the allegations

High Court

The High Court allowed the Claimant’s appeal.

The judge decided that the suspension was not a “neutral act. He commented that:

  • the Claimant was suspended before she was asked about the allegations;
  • the Head Teacher had investigated the first two incidents and had concluded that no more than reasonable force had been used;
  • there was no evidence that consideration was given to any alternative to suspension before the decision to suspend was made and suspension was not necessary to facilitate an investigation.

The judge said that these points added up to the conclusion that suspension was adopted as the default position and as largely a knee jerk reaction to the allegation of misconduct. It was sufficient to breach the implied term of trust and confidence.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s decision.

Singh LJ said the case depended on whether the school’s response to the allegations of use of force had been reasonable and proper.

“Bearing in mind that the context was one in which the employer had to safeguard the interests of very young children, it seems to me that the trial judge was entitled to reach the conclusion that the employer had reasonable and proper cause for the suspension in this case. It follows that the High Court was not entitled to interfere with that conclusion of fact on the appeal before it.”

Comment

Suspension is rarely a neutral act. The absence of a colleague following suspension will inevitably lead to speculation from others. Suspension is a serious step and can undermine mutual trust and confidence in the employment relationship. Suspension should never be a routine response to the need for an investigation.

London Borough of Lambeth v Simone Agoreyo

Warning: this news item is not a substitute for legal advice. The information may be incorrect or out of date and does not constitute a definitive or complete statement of the law. This news item is not intended to constitute legal advice in any specific situation. Readers should obtain legal advice and not rely on the information in this article.