The Employment Appeals Tribunal has found that the dismissal of a school caretaker for historical sex abuse allegations was unfair.
The caretaker, who was being investigated by police but had not been charged, was dismissed after the school decided that the relationship had broken down irreparably and that the allegations had the potential to damage the reputation of the school in the eyes of parents and the wider public. While the EAT found that this could be a potentially fair reason for dismissal, it was by no means guaranteed. Both the ET and the EAT were critical of the process followed by the school in coming to their decision.
The caretaker was suspended for a year while police investigated the allegation, which was ultimately unproven. He was then invited to a meeting with the head teacher who subsequently recommended to the Board of Governors that he be dismissed. Two days prior to a hearing before the Governors, the head teacher spoke to the police who confirmed that the allegations against the caretaker were not supported by other witness statements and that no criminal charges had been brought. At the hearing, the Governors took the decision to dismiss the caretaker on the grounds that, even if the allegations were unproven, the serious nature of the allegations was enough to demonstrate that the relationship of trust and confidence had broken down.
The ET found that the dismissal was unfair, but the school appealed to the EAT. The EAT expressed sympathy for the position of an employer who is required to balance their duty to safeguard children with their duty to employees. However, in this case the employer got it wrong. A bare accusation, even of something as serious as child abuse, does not in of itself give rise to a fair dismissal, particularly when the employer’s procedures had not been followed fairly.