In the event of a successful unfair dismissal claim, tribunals may award compensation. In Evans v London Borough of Brent, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that, just because there was no prospect of compensation being awarded to this claimant, the tribunal should not have automatically struck out the claim.
Dr Evans, a deputy head teacher, was investigated by the council along with other teachers on suspicion of financial misconduct. The allegations included taking bonuses which were unlawful under teachers’ standard terms and conditions as well as making and receiving other payments that should not have been made or accepted.
About two weeks prior to the disciplinary hearing, Dr Evans received documentation of more than 800 pages of paperwork. He asked for the hearing to be delayed to give him time to go through it all and to allow his sister to attend the hearing. This was denied and the hearing (at which he was dismissed) went ahead in his absence.
He then lodged a claim of unfair dismissal. Initially these proceedings were stayed pending criminal proceedings involving Dr Evans and other members of the school staff team, including the head teacher. They were then stayed again pending the outcome of High Court proceedings, which found that Dr Evans had wrongly received more than £250,000 in overpayments.
Given the High Court findings, the tribunal concluded that the unfair dismissal claim was unlikely to succeed, except on the ground of procedural unfairness arising from the council’s refusal to adjourn the disciplinary hearing.
Although it could not be held that the whole claim would fail, the tribunal concluded that as it would not be just and equitable to make a financial award of any sort to Dr Evans, it should be struck out.
It also held that, in any event, it was not in the interests of justice for further substantial court time to be spent on this claim or for the council to incur further costs. In the alternative, the tribunal made clear that, in order to continue with the claim, it would have required Dr Evans to pay a deposit.
Dr Evans appealed on the basis that, given the tribunal’s finding that his unfair dismissal claim might succeed on the point of procedural unfairness relating to the disciplinary hearing, it should not have struck it out as having no reasonable prospect of success.
Allowing the appeal, the EAT held that the tribunal was wrong to conclude that a finding of unfair dismissal in and of itself, even if there was no possibility that Dr Evans would be awarded compensation, was pointless.
Given that the only issue that still required to be litigated was that of procedural fairness, the EAT was also unclear as to why that would require “substantial judicial resources” or further greater expenditure on the part of Brent.
Having found that there were reasonable prospects of a finding of unfair dismissal on procedural grounds, the EAT reasoned that it could not be said that such a finding would be of no value or that the interests of justice could not require that an employer be held to account, even if that could not lead to any financial award for the employee concerned.
Other than the procedural unfairness issue it had identified, however, the tribunal had been entitled to find that all other parts of the claim of unfair dismissal should be struck out. That did not, however, justify the striking out of the entire claim and to that extent it set aside the tribunal judgment.
There is often a misconception among respondent practitioners that a claimant is only pursuing litigation for compensation. Claimant lawyers will know that it is not always about the money. The driving force behind a claimant pursuing a claim of unfair dismissal is also about minimising damage to reputation and future career prospects and so a finding from the tribunal that the dismissal was unfair is equally as important to a claimant.