A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision highlights some important principles in managing disciplinary cases.
Dr Dronsfield, a professor at the University of Reading, had a sexual relationship with one of his students. This was a disciplinary issue but under the university’s rules, he could be dismissed only if his conduct was held to be ‘immoral, scandalous or of a disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of office or employment’.
A senior academic and an HR business partner investigated the matter, with a view to preparing a report for the disciplinary decision-maker. In their initial draft investigation report they expressed the opinion that there was no evidence that Dr Dronsfield’s conduct had been immoral, scandalous or disgraceful. But this conclusion was not theirs to draw – it was a matter for the decision-maker. The university’s in-house lawyer reviewed the draft report and the wording was removed from the final version. Dr Dronsfield was later dismissed by an independent decision-maker, and appealed unsuccessfully. During the internal process he had sight of the original draft documents so was aware of the amendments.
He brought a claim of unfair dismissal, and after his claim was unsuccessful, appealed to the EAT. His main argument was that it was not reasonable for the draft report to have been amended, and that the intervention of the in-house lawyer was unfair.
The EAT dismissed his claim. It held that it was fair and reasonable to have the in-house lawyer advise the investigators, particularly taking into account the error which had been made in the first draft: any question as to whether there were sufficient grounds to dismiss should have been left for the decision-maker.
This case is a useful reminder as to the differing roles of the investigator and the decision-maker in a disciplinary process. Investigators have to form opinions on the facts: but decisions relating to the outcome of the process should be left to the manager responsible for the outcome