Supreme Court Refuses Permission to Appeal in Shoesmith Case

Posted: 4th August 2011

The Supreme Court has rejected an application made by the Department for Education (DfE) and Haringey Council to challenge the Court of Appeal’s ruling of unfair dismissal in the case of Sharon Shoesmith. Ms Shoesmith was the Director of Children’s Services for Haringey Council at the time of the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly.
After a damning Ofsted report into the Council’s failings in the case, the former Education Secretary, Ed Balls, announced, at a press conference on December 2008, that Ms Shoesmith was ‘not fit for office’ and he had taken the decision to remove her from her £133,000-a-year post immediately. Haringey Council duly sacked Ms Shoesmith, without compensation, and took away her pension rights.
The Court of Appeal upheld Ms Shoesmith’s appeal against the decision of the High Court that she had not been unlawfully dismissed. The Court of Appeal made it clear that in reaching a decision that Ms Shoesmith’s dismissal was unlawful, it was not giving a view on whether or not she was to blame for what happened.
The business of the Court was to ‘adjudicate upon the application and fairness of procedures adopted’ in the case. In doing so, it found that Haringey Council, although put in ‘a very difficult position’ following Mr Balls’ announcement, had rushed to a decision to dismiss Ms Shoesmith in a process that was ‘tainted by unfairness’.Whatever Ms Shoesmith’s shortcomings may have been, ‘she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated’.
As it was, she had been given no chance to respond to the criticisms contained in the Ofsted report before it was published, in contravention of procedures, and had been sacked by the Council in a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction without being given the opportunity to explain or excuse her actions or mitigate her predicament. Neither the Secretary of State nor the Council was entitled to ignore due process, despite the intense media and public reaction to the events: ‘accountability’ is not synonymous with ‘heads must roll’.
The DfE said that the Government was ‘right in principle’ to remove Ms Shoesmith from her post and sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. This has now been refused.
That is not the end of the matter, however, as the amount of compensation payable has still to be determined.
The case emphasises the importance of following the correct procedures when a member of staff is dismissed for any reason.