'Unusually Robust Language' Did Not Undermine Unfair Dismissal Ruling

An argument by school governors that the ‘unusually robust language’ used by an Employment Tribunal (ET) in upholding a teacher’s unfair dismissal claim revealed a loss of objectivity and amounted to an error of law has failed to convince the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) that the case should be re-heard (The Governing Body of Story Wood School and Children’s Centre v Jones).

Sandra Jones was in charge of pastoral care at a nursery school, Story Wood School and Children’s Centre, for 10 years before she resigned and claimed that she had been forced from her post by poor treatment at the hands of the school’s head teacher. The case centred on the head’s decision to remove Mrs Jones’s child protection responsibilities after she discussed certain concerns she had with an NSPCC worker in circumstances which the head viewed as a breach of confidentiality.

The ET later found that the assessment of Mrs Jones’s character by the head teacher and the deputy head had been ‘acutely unfair’ and coloured by unreliable gossip obtained ‘on the grapevine’. Despite her years of ‘unblemished’ performance of her duties in a socially deprived and often hostile environment, Mrs Jones had been painted as ‘a difficult and confrontational person’.

The ET found that she had been ‘marginalised’ and ‘undermined’, her reputation had been tainted and the head’s behaviour towards her was ‘little short of a witch hunt’. The head’s reaction to her genuine expressions of concern was ‘at best entirely disproportionate and, at worst, utterly groundless’ and the accumulation of events amounted to a wholesale undermining of the trust and confidence in her employer which Mrs Jones should have been entitled to expect.

Challenging the ET’s decision, the governors of the school claimed that the robust language used by the ET revealed that it had lost an objective grasp of the evidence. They contended that its reasons for upholding Mrs Jones’s unfair dismissal claim were ‘long on rhetoric and short on factual analysis’. It was submitted that the ET had allowed itself to become side-tracked from the real issues by its conviction that Mrs Jones had been ‘shabbily treated’.

The EAT agreed that some of the wording used by the ET in its decision was excessively robust and that it had to take a share of responsibility for the impression that objectivity may have been lost. The Employment Judge concerned was urged to be ‘more circumspect about the inappropriate use of language in the future’.

However, in dismissing the governors’ appeal, the EAT found that none of the criticisms of the language used in the ET’s decision undermined the evidential basis of its findings of fact and it had been entitled to rule that there had been a repudiatory breach of Mrs Jones’s employment contract.

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