Employment Law Speed Read – 18/03/19
18th March, 2019
In London Borough of Lambeth v Agoreyo the Court of Appeal considered whether the suspension of an employee was a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.
Ms Agoreyo was a primary school teacher who started work for London Borough of Lambeth (Lambeth) in November 2012. Just five weeks into her employment Ms Agoreyo was suspended pending an investigation into three separate allegations, by two members of staff, that she had used excessive force when dealing with two pupils with special educational needs. Ms Agoreyo resigned later that day and went on to commence proceedings for breach of contract, claiming she was entitled to resign in response to a repudiatory breach of contract by the school.
A term of mutual trust and confidence is implied into all employment contracts. Either the employer or the employee may bring the contract to an end where a breach is likely to destroy that implied term of trust and confidence.
The County Court found that the school was “entitled and indeed bound” to suspend Ms Agoreyo as a result of the allegations and therefore the suspension had not breached the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. Ms Agoreyo appealed.
Ms Agoreyo’s appeal was upheld by the High Court. They considered the suspension a “knee-jerk” reaction and emphasised the need to avoid suspension as the default position without considering the alternatives. The High Court held that the County Court had erred in law, and in the circumstances the suspension did breach the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. Lambeth appealed.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal (CA) allowed Lambeth’s appeal and restored the County Court judgment. The CA held that the High Court had erred by substituting its view for that of the County Court, and that it was not entitled to interfere with the findings of fact made by the County Court. The CA held that the school did have proper cause to suspend Ms Agoreyo, particularly given the duty the school had to safeguard the interests of very young children. In that regard, it could not be said to have breached the implied term of mutual trust and confidence.
The appeal also considered whether suspension was a “neutral act”. The CA stated that the crucial question for the court was whether there had been a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. This requires a consideration of whether there was reasonable and proper cause for the suspension – this is a highly fact-specific question and whether suspension is a “neutral act” or not is unlikely to assist in resolving that question.
The decision is a reminder to employers that they must have reasonable and proper cause to suspend an employee, and whether this amounts to a breach of contract will be highly fact-specific. In addition, employers must ensure that suspension is not a knee-jerk reaction and must deal with each case on its own merits.
If you have any questions on the above and how it will affect you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with a member of our employment team.
Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.
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