Dismissal for relationship with student

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has allowed an appeal against a finding of fair dismissal in relation to a University teacher who was dismissed for failing to disclose a personal relationship with a student. The case will now be sent back to another tribunal to re-examine the case.

During the academic year 2011/2012 the teacher was involved in the academic supervision of a student called A. It was at this time that a personal relationship began between them. Guidance provided to University of Reading staff in relation to staff/student personal relationships made clear that the teacher must not continue to assess, examine or in general teach the student. It stated that a teacher in those circumstances must inform the head of department or Dean of the existence of the non-academic relationship.

The teacher did not follow the guidance. He did not report to any manager or colleague that there had been a sexual encounter. He continued to supervise A’s dissertation. She submitted work which he assessed. There is no suggestion that he favoured her in the assessment: two others independently assessed the same work, and all three marks were close. In June 2013, A’s former boyfriend reported the relationship to the Respondent. The teacher was dismissed for failing to disclose the relationship, and brought a claim of unfair dismissal.

The teacher’s employment was governed by royal charter and statute as well as his contract of employment. The Respondent was entitled to dismiss only for good cause as defined in the statute which required it to prove “conduct of an immoral scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”.

The Employment Tribunal (ET) equated these words with the concept of gross misconduct and so found that the teacher’s actions had equated to an act of gross misconduct for breaching rules on relationship disclosure. However, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that the ET was not entitled to do this because its duty was to apply the contractual wording. What it ought to have considered was whether it was reasonable for the Respondent to find that the Claimant was guilty of “conduct of an immoral scandalous or disgraceful nature incompatible with the duties of the office or employment”. Its reasoning showed that it did not do so.

The appeal was allowed and the case has been remitted to a fresh Employment Tribunal for re-examination.

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