The case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth, reminds employers about the potential pitfalls of suspension.
Mrs Agoreyo was a primary school teacher, with 15 years’ experience. After an incident at the school, where it was alleged that Mrs Agoreyo had used improper physical force towards two pupils, she was suspended. She resigned the next day, claiming that the decision to suspend her was a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. The High Court agreed with her.
The suspension letter sent to Mrs Agoreyo used the kind of language which will be familiar to employers. It stated that the “precautionary suspension” was “pending a full investigation into the allegations”, and suspension was “a neutral act” and “not a disciplinary sanction”.
Looking at all the evidence, the Court made it clear that suspension should not be the default option for an employer; an individual should only be suspended if there is no reasonable alternative. The Court found there was no evidence that prior to Mrs Agoreyo’s suspension, the decision maker had spoken to her about what had occurred, or that she had been asked for her response to the allegations. The Court also decided that the School had not considered whether there was any alternative to suspension in the circumstances.
Therefore, suspending Mrs Agoreyo damaged the relationship of trust and confidence, and was a breach of contract.
A reminder for employers
Whilst the decision in this case depended very much on its own facts, and the Court also referred to the local authority guidance which applies to the employment of teachers, the decision is useful for all employers.
- Employers are reminded that suspending an employee should not be a “knee jerk” reaction to an allegation of misconduct.
- Employers should consider carefully whether suspension is really necessary, and what its aim is. The fact that an allegation is a very serious one is not, on its own, likely to be enough.
- At the very least, some initial investigation should be done (and documented) before deciding to suspend, and the employee should be spoken to.
- Even then, employers should think about alternatives to suspension.
- A suspension which happens simply to allow an investigation to take place, and nothing more, may be risky. If the employer genuinely believes that the employee’s presence at work may threaten or undermine the investigation, for example, that is likely to strengthen the employer’s position.
- If an employee is suspended, it should be kept under review.
- The case suggests that where the employee is a qualified professional, like Mrs Agoreyo, particular care should be taken.