In the case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth [2017] EWHC 2019 (QB), the High Court held that the suspension of a teacher amounted to a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.

Facts

Ms Agoreyo, the claimant, was employed as a primary school teacher by the London Borough of Lambeth (Lambeth) from 9 November 2012. She had around 15 years' teaching experience and, as part of her role, was required to teach a class of up to 29 five and six year old children. Two of those children exhibited extremely challenging behaviour and the claimant had made numerous requests to the school where she worked for additional support. This was eventually acknowledged by the school, which started to put in place supportive measures for the claimant.

Five weeks into her employment, the claimant was suspended from work following allegations that she had used unreasonable force towards the two children referred to above on three occasions. The claimant was informed that the purpose of the suspension was to "allow the investigation to be conducted fairly" and that it was a "neutral action". This was confirmed to the claimant in writing. However, prior to the decision to suspend, the claimant was not asked for her comments on the allegations, nor did Lambeth provide any evidence to suggest that it had considered other alternatives to suspension.

Later that day the claimant resigned. She subsequently brought a claim against Lambeth in the County Court for breach of contract and argued that suspension was not reasonable or necessary in order for the investigation to take place.

County Court decision

The County Court held that Lambeth was bound to suspend the claimant after receiving reports of the allegations against her. The claimant appealed to the High Court.

High Court decision

The High Court allowed the appeal and held that:

  • The County Court had erred in holding that Lambeth was bound to suspend the claimant. The use of the word "bound" indicated that the Court considered there was no alternative to suspension, although no express reasons for such a finding were given in the judgment
  • The County Court had also erred in finding that Lambeth had "reasonable and proper cause" to suspend the claimant on grounds of its overriding duty to protect children. Lambeth had clearly stated to the claimant in writing that the purpose of the suspension was not to protect children but to ensure a fair investigation
  • The procedure used by Lambeth to suspend the claimant was incorrect. The High Court found that:
    • there was no evidence of any attempt to ascertain the claimant's version of events prior to the decision to suspend
    • there was no evidence of any consideration of alternatives to suspension
    • the letter of suspension did not explain why an investigation could not be conducted fairly without the need for suspension.

In summary, the High Court held in favour of the claimant. It found that Lambeth had adopted suspension as a default position and it was largely a knee-jerk reaction, which was sufficient to breach the implied duty of trust and confidence. It also held that, as suspension took place only a few days after additional supportive measures had been put in place (which had not been fully implemented), this also constituted a further repudiatory breach of contract by Lambeth.

Interestingly, the High Court was also influenced by the potential stigma associated with suspending a qualified professional (such as, in the claimant's case, a teacher) and the potential impact on her future career.

Comment

This case highlights the care an employer must take when considering suspending an employee, even in cases where the alleged conduct is very serious. It also highlights that suspension should not be a default position or a knee-jerk reaction and employers must follow a proper procedure when looking to suspend, particularly where the employee in question is a qualified professional.

The decision suggests that an employer should take the following steps when considering whether or not to suspend an employee:

  1. Speak to the individual prior to suspension and ask for their comments on the allegations against them.
  2. Carefully consider what the true purpose of the suspension would be.
  3. Consider whether there are any alternatives to suspension (such as reassignment) and whether suspension is necessary.
  4. Fully document the reasons for suspension in writing.

We would also advise including a term in the contract of employment which provides the employer with a right to suspend, as this will help to demonstrate that the employer is acting reasonably and in accordance with the contract.