The claimant, a school teacher, was immediately suspended following allegations that she used excessive force against pupils in her class. The only reason she was given for her suspension was that it was essential for a fair investigation to be conducted. The teacher resigned from her position the same day as she was suspended.
The suspension letter stated:
‘The suspension is a neutral action and is not a disciplinary sanction. The purpose of the suspension is to allow the investigation to be conducted fairly.’
The High Court decided in Agoreyo v The London Borough of Lambeth that yes, suspension can result in breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee.
The Judge disagreed with the notion that suspension is a neutral act and stated:
‘I venture to disagree [that the decision to suspend can be considered a neutral act], at least in relation to the employment of a qualified professional in a function which is as much a vocation as a job. Suspension changes the status quo from work to no work, and it inevitably casts a shadow over the employee's competence. Of course, this does not mean that it cannot be done, but it is not a neutral act.’
The Judge also considered the statutory guidance for local authorities - which stated that, although allegations of physical and sexual abuse were considered a serious matter, suspension of the employee should not be the default position, and that ‘an individual should be suspended only if there is no reasonable alternative’.
In this case, the only explanation given for the suspension was that it was necessary to allow the investigation to be conducted fairly. No reasons were provided as to why any investigation could not be carried out fairly without suspension. No consideration was given to the teacher’s version of events prior to the decision to suspend.
No alternatives to her suspension, such as working somewhere else in the school, or changing her duties for a short period of time while the investigation was going on, were considered. The Court decided that the decision to suspend her was, in fact, a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the allegations of abuse. These amounted to a fundamental breach of contract, resulting in constructive dismissal.
This judgment emphasises that employers should be cautious when considering whether to suspend an employee. A default position of suspension in any circumstance may well result in breach of the implied terms of mutual trust and confidence. Employers should carefully consider whether there is any alternative to suspension, and ensure that there is documented evidence that they have done so.
For more information, please contact Nia Cooper.
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