We recently represented the Board of Management of a school in its successful appeal against a High Court decision awarding €255,000 for the alleged bullying of a special needs assistant by school management. This is an important case for schools that were concerned by the original High Court decision for two reasons:

  1. It appeared to represent an extension of the conventional definition of bullying by virtue of the court’s finding that this employer’s disciplinary process could be described as bullying; and
  2. The significant monetary award to the Special Needs Assistant. 

The High Court made the award in 2014 based on what Mr Justice O’Neill then described as “severe” and “unmerited” treatment in what, he found, to be persistent inappropriate behaviour towards the special needs assistant by school management. We advised the Board of Management to appeal the decision, which they duly did. The Court of Appeal has now disagreed with the High Court judgment, finding that the definition of bullying as interpreted by Mr Justice O’Neill in the High Court had “to be stretched beyond breaking point to fit this case”.

On Tuesday 8 December, the Court of Appeal found that the employee was unfairly treated by virtue of the “hopelessly flawed” disciplinary proceedings, but regardless of the flaws, the court concluded that the conduct of school management in that regard did not come anywhere close to the definition of bullying as set out in Quigley v Complex Tooling and Moulding [1] where the Supreme Court accepted the definition of bullying set out in the Industrial Relations Act 1990[2] as "repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise conducted by one or more persons against another or others at the place of work and/or in the course of employment which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual's right to dignity at work". 

An isolated incident of the behaviour described in the definition may be an affront to dignity at work but, as a once off incident, it is not considered to be bullying. The court also reiterated the importance of the objective test in determining whether or not particular conduct can be classified as inappropriate.

A botched disciplinary process – not a case of bullying

This decision is important for school management at primary and second level. It provides an assurance to principals that the mere engagement in agreed disciplinary procedures will not, of itself, support a claim for damages for bullying in a civil case. Just because you are under investigation, does not mean you are being bullied. It also re-affirms the validity of the definition of bullying, as set out above, which is commonly found in most school anti-bullying procedures.

Finally, it confirms the definition of bullying contained in the Department of Education and Skills Disciplinary Procedures [3] for special needs assistants.