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Unfair Dismissal and Investigation

A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case has highlighted that caution should be exercised when conducting an investigation (in the context of disciplinary proceedings) and producing a report.  

In the case of Dronsfield v University of Reading, Dr Dronsfield was an Associate Professor at the University of Reading (the University). He was dismissed for gross misconduct after the University received an allegation that Dr Dronsfield had failed to report a sexual relationship which he had with a student under his supervision.

Dr Dronsfield’s employment with the University was governed by royal charter and various statutes, as well as a traditional contract of employment. Pursuant to one such statute, the University was only entitled to dismiss Dr Dronsfield if it had “good cause” to do so and if it could show that Dr Dronsfield’s conduct was ”of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment". 

The University appointed another professor to investigate the allegation, with the support of an internal HR advisor. They interviewed Dr Dronsfield together and produced a joint report. Numerous drafts of the report were produced, which were reviewed by the University’s HR department and in-house lawyer.  The final version of the report which was submitted omitted a number of findings that would have been favourable to Dr Dronsfield. Following a hearing, the University dismissed Dr Dronsfield. He claimed unfair dismissal.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) dismissed Dr Dronsfield’s claim of unfair dismissal. He appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).  

The EAT considered, amongst other things, the interpretation of the words “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment".  The EAT held that the University was not entitled to replace this wording with some more general concept such as gross misconduct and that the words "immoral scandalous or disgraceful" should be judged against contemporary standards, not those of 1926 when the statute was enacted. 

On the question of the various changes to the investigation report, the EAT noted that it was “surprising…that the investigation report was produced as though it was the joint responsibility” of the investigation officer and the HR advisor. HR's advice should be limited essentially to matters of law and procedure; questions of culpability should be reserved for the investigating officer. Any alterations to an investigation report by a third party (for example, the HR department) need to be made with this in mind. The investigating officer should be able to explain any changes made following such alterations.

Accordingly, the EAT remitted the case for a re-hearing by a fresh Tribunal. 

This case serves as a reminder that investigation reports must be the product of the independent thought of the investigating officer, and any amendments or input from a third party should not alter or omit elements of the investigating officer’s findings. 

This bulletin is for general guidance purposes only and should not be used for any other purpose.

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