Teaching a lesson in fair play

Recent High Court action by head teacher Marie Younie, who claims she was wrongly sacked, is being heralded by employment lawyers as a warning to disciplinary bodies that they must play by the rules.

Governors of an Essex school were threatened with moves to jail them and the school board now faces a five-figure bill for legal costs.

Simon Thomas labour law expert and assistant solicitor with the 30,000-member union the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), says the case demonstrates that employment procedures must be strictly adhered to.

"The fact that [school governors] are not professionals is no excuse for them not to act according to the book," he warned.

Moves to jail the governors of Belfairs Community College, at Leigh, Essex, have been dropped after assurances to safeguard Younie's position were given.

The case arose after Younie was sacked following disciplinary proceedings.

However, when lawyers for her union, the NAHT, looked more closely at her dismissal they argued that proceedings had been in breach of school rules and that the chair of the disciplinary committee had not been properly appointed.

On 20 September the union, acting on behalf of Younie, obtained an injunction banning the governing body from implementing the sacking decision. But the following day at a meeting of the governors – described in court by Younie's counsel David Bean as "extraordinary in every sense of the word" – moves were taken to appoint a new disciplinary committee. This committee resacked Younie the same day.

That move, said to have been taken on a solicitor's advice, formed the basis of committal proceedings against the governors for contempt of the order the day before. But terms were reached and the matter was finally settled on undertakings.

However, Thomas, previously with top union solicitors Robin Thompson & Partners, said the case contained important pointers for the employment law sector.

He says it emphasised the need for employers, whether professional or those such as staff committees, to fully understand the rules of their procedures when they sought to implement them.

"From this case, it looks as if people were conducting disciplinary proceedings and dismissing a staff member without knowing whether they were acting lawfully. It defies belief that people would act as they did knowingly and think they could get away with it," he said.

"The message for all who seek to take action of this kind is to seek advice at an early stage to ensure they can actually do what they are intending."

The second warning from the case, he said, is not to make matters worse by attempting to get round the situation. That is what happened when the second committee was formed in an attempt to circumnavigate the court ban preventing action against Younie.

"People such as these have access to various sources of professional advice," said Thomas. "There is no excuse for not taking advice when dealing with someone's career.

"The fact they are not professional employers does not excuse it."