Witness immunity in employment cases

Posted: 29th July 2013

A former head teacher has won the right to pursue a claim that her local authority employers brought ‘undue pressure’ to bear on a colleague to give evidence against her in proceedings pending before an employment tribunal.

The head teacher, a British citizen of Asian descent, claimed that the local authority and the governors of the school had deliberately endorsed a targeted campaign of discrimination, bullying, harassment and victimisation against her with the objective of forcing her from her post. The governors and local authority denied those claims, insisting that the grave breakdown in relationships was due to the head teacher’s autocratic style of leadership and poor communication skills..

SchoolThe head teacher was still in her job when she lodged with an employment tribunal complaints of race discrimination, harassment and victimisation.  She subsequently resigned, saying that the ‘final straw’ had come when a colleague at the school – with whom she had enjoyed a good working relationship - signed a witness statement in support of her employers’ case.

She claimed constructive unfair dismissal. However, her case hit a stumbling block when the tribunal ruled out her claim that the council had placed pressure on her colleague to produce a witness statement containing false or inaccurate evidence. That ruling, which was later upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, was on the basis that the colleague’s witness statement was covered by the long-established immunity given to witnesses in legal proceedings.

In upholding the head teacher’s challenge to that decision, the Court of Appeal noted that her true complaint was not about the contents of the colleague’s statement but the means by which it had been procured by the council. The nub of her claim was that the council had, by the pressure it allegedly applied, done something calculated to destroy or damage the trust and confidence that should have existed between employer and employee.

The Court’s decision means that the head teacher’s arguments in respect of the council’s conduct relating to the colleague’ witness statement will be fully considered by the employment tribunal that determines her case.