Christou & Ward v London Borough of Haringey UKEAT/0298/11

This case relates to the caseworkers concerned with Baby P. Ms Ward was a caseworker directly responsible for Baby P’s care and Ms Christou was her manager. Following Baby P’s death Ms Christou and Ms Ward were issued with written warnings for various failings in Baby P’s case following their disciplinary proceedings by Haringey Council. After the criminal proceedings against Baby P’s mother, there was widespread concern about the Council’s handling of the case. As a result Sharon Shoesmith was removed from her post.

A new experienced Director of Children’s Services was put in charge and he examined among other things, whether the current disciplinary sanctions against Ms Christou and Ms Ward were sufficient in the light of the evidence now available. His investigation concluded that the earlier disciplinary proceedings were inadequate and that grounds existed to justify considering further disciplinary proceedings in respect of the serious allegations about Baby P’s child protection plan. Following investigatory interviews and disciplinary hearings Ms Christou and Ms Ward were dismissed for gross misconduct in April 2009. They unsuccessfully appealed and subsequently brought employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal.

The EAT held that their dismissals 18 months after the death of Baby P and 12 months after they were both initially issued with written warnings were fair. The Council’s decision to discipline the employees twice even where this resulted in an increased sanction, fell within the range of reasonable responses of their employer and did not make the dismissals unfair. On appeal they had argued that the second disciplinary process was in breach of the “double jeopardy” principle. The EAT disagreed confirming that the principle of res judicata only applies to decisions that are judicial and not internal disciplinary investigations. The dismissals and the re‑trial in this way were reasonable because of the exceptional consequences of this case.

Key point: The change of management which took a different view about the earlier sanction in what was a very serious matter meant that the Council’s dismissal fell within the range of reasonable responses. There is no rule of law that a dismissal following separate disciplinary procedures based on the same facts will necessarily be unfair but such cases will be rare.