Baby P: Shoesmith settlement highlights importance of fair process in dismissals

News of the settlement of Sharon Shoesmiths’ claims against Haringey Council was almost inevitable after the Court of Appeal’s decision in May 2011 that the decision to dismiss her was unlawful.

The Court of Appeal was not determining an unfair dismissal claim. Its ruling was judicially reviewing the decision to dismiss. But the case still highlights the need for basic fair process, even in seemingly clear cut of summary dismissals. The Court of Appeal stated: “whatever her shortcomings may have been … she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated”.

Mark Cornish, employment specialist at Grant Saw believes that Ed Balls’ focus on the merits of sacking Ms Shoesmith misses the point – perhaps intentionally. “If you start by asking whether the Council was right to dismiss her, you’re asking the wrong question. This is not about whether she should have been sacked, but whether Mr Balls and Haringey Council complied with some basic employment law. Following fair process is just as important as having a fair reason. It’s clear that Ms Shoesmith was never given an opportunity to defend herself.”

It wouldn’t have been difficult to do. Before deciding to dismiss Ms Shoesmith, the Council should have conducted an investigation; informed her of the allegations; suspended her (on full pay); and allowed her a hearing to defend herself. This needn’t take that long. Councils may not be the quickest at dealing with disciplinary matters, but in this case things could surely have been expedited. The short term cost of a few days pay, would surely have been far more palatable than the “bad taste” left by news of settlement. Perhaps the public were impatient but you can’t circumvent fair process because you think it might score a few points with a public whipped up by a frenzy of media hysteria.

To the extent there’s any bad taste left by the settlement, Mr Balls might care to reflect on who made a meal of things in the first place.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.