The Supreme Court has decided that a head teacher, Ms Reilly, was fairly dismissed for gross misconduct for failing to disclose to her school’s authorities the fact that she had a close relationship with a man who had been convicted of making indecent images of children.
Ms Reilly had argued that she was under no duty to disclose the relationship as there was no clear clause in her contract requiring her to report such a relationship. Furthermore, she did not live with the offender. Nevertheless, the pair owned a house together as an investment, they went on holiday together and she was a named driver on his car insurance. They were not partners, but their relationship was thought to be more than a financial one.
The Supreme Court (and every tribunal and court before that) disagreed with Ms Reilly. It ruled that she was in breach of her contract by failing to report the relationship. As a head teacher with safeguarding responsibilities, she should have realised that her association with this man posed a risk to the children in her care. She had a duty to inform the school, so that the governors could assess if protective steps should be taken. It was not for the head teacher to decide whether her relationship gave rise to a risk of harm. There were many ways in which the offender could have used his friendship with Ms Reilly to gain access to the school’s pupils.
The Supreme Court’s decision confirms that the action taken by Sandwell Metropolitan District Council and the school in question to dismiss Ms Reilly was within the range of reasonable responses following her failure to disclose the relationship. Furthermore, Ms Reilly’s refusal to accept that she had been in breach of her duty suggested a continuing lack of insight making it inappropriate for her to continue to run the school.
To establish a fair dismissal, an employer will always need to show it has a fair reason for dismissal and that the decision to dismiss the employee fell within the range of reasonable responses that a reasonable employer in those circumstances might have adopted. This case reminds us that what will be considered a reasonable response to an employee’s conduct does depend on the specific facts of the case. Clearly the head teacher in this case had wider safeguarding responsibilities which took precedence over keeping her personal relationships private, meaning it was a reasonable decision in the circumstances for the school to dismiss.