School caught in cleft stick

Posted: 11th December 2013

LockersIn a case which threw into stark relief the ‘cleft stick’ in which employers providing services to children and vulnerable adults often find themselves, a school caretaker who was sacked after facing unsubstantiated allegations of historic child abuse has won more than £5,000 in compensation for his unfair dismissal.

Upon being notified of the allegations by the police, the school’s head – ‘although disbelieving’ – took the view that he had no choice but to suspend the caretaker in order to protect pupils and the reputation of the school. After he had been away from work for about a year, the decision was taken to dismiss him.

The allegation had not been substantiated by witnesses other than the complainant and was still under investigation by the police when the dismissal decision was made. The school’s governors took the view that, even if the caretaker were exonerated, the mere fact of the allegation justified dismissal.

The governors were concerned that parents might take the view that there was ‘no smoke without fire’. However, an Employment Tribunal (ET) upheld the caretaker’s unfair dismissal claim, and awarded him compensation of £5,155.52, on the basis that a bare accusation or unsupported suspicion, even one so serious, could not justify his dismissal.

In dismissing the school’s challenge to that ruling, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that the school had been put in a very difficult position and had been placed in a cleft stick. It acknowledged that the school’s duty was first and foremost to its pupils, but added, “That does not remove its responsibility to its employees."

Observing that every case turns on its own facts, the EAT could detect no flaw in the ET’s conclusions on the evidence. The caretaker’s cross-appeal against the amount of his award, which he argued did not reflect the devastating impact of the dismissal on his working life, was also dismissed.