Professor-student relationship leads to dismissal

In Dronsfield v University of Reading, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decided that an employee was fairly dismissed for misconduct, despite content being removed from an investigation report that expressed views in their favour.

The claimant in this case worked as an associate professor for the University of Reading. His appointment at the University was subject to a governing statute, which stated that he would only be dismissed for behaviour of ‘immoral, scandalous or disgraceful (ISD) nature’ that was incompatible with the duties of the office or employment.

As part of their employment, all university staff were provided with guidance which explained that if they entered into a relationship with a student, they must not be ‘professionally involved with assessing or examining that student’ and inform their head of department. Allegations were later made against the claimant, that he’d been involved in a sexual relationship with a student without reporting it and had, therefore, abused his position of power and breached his duty of care.

An investigation report into these allegations was produced by an investigating manager, in conjunction with a HR representative. The initial report found ‘no evidence to suggest’ that the claimant’s conduct amounted to ISD contrary to the provisions of the statute. However, the final version removed this conclusion following advice from external solicitors, who stated that an investigation report should not set out its own evaluative conclusions.

The claimant was later dismissed for gross misconduct and appealed against this decision. Although the external barrister who heard his appeal read the initial report in its entirety and considered the omissions, he upheld the decision to dismiss. As a result, the claimant proceeded to claim unfair dismissal with the employment tribunal who, although concerned by the redaction to the initial investigation report, ultimately accepted the investigating manager’s findings.

However, on appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) overturned this decision and remitted the case back to a fresh tribunal. The EAT found that the report had been heavily influenced and amended by the university’s HR and in-house legal departments, meaning the standards of objective fairness had been compromised. Additionally, the ET had failed to consider why the investigating manager had seemingly changed his view to the claimant’s detriment.

Once remitted, the new ET once again ruled that it had been a fair decision to dismiss the claimant. The ET held that the investigation manager had changed his view on advice from solicitors and, on the balance of facts, the university had been correct to leave conclusions on the claimant’s conduct to the disciplinary tribunal.

Despite this, the claimant once again appealed on the grounds that the tribunal had not adequately addressed the arguments he put forward as to his dismissal not being fair, nor provided adequate reasons as to why they had been rejected. However, the EAT disagreed and held that there was no suggestion that any evidence had been withheld from the investigation report, nor that any of this evidence had not been put before the disciplinary panel that had made the decision to dismiss the claimant. Therefore, asserting that the original decision to dismiss was indeed fair.

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