HR must not influence disciplinary outcomes, says EAT


Summary dismissal case echoes Ramphal judgment

A recent Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) case, called Dronsfield v University of Reading, highlights the difficult line which HR and in-house legal professionals must tread when dealing with disciplinary matters.

Dronsfield was a professor at Reading University, and was bound by the university’s policies and procedures, one of which dealt with personal relationships between staff and students. The guidance provided that any member of staff in a personal relationship with a student should inform the university in order that it could make arrangements to ensure that the assessment of the student in question would be unbiased. Dronsfield failed to comply with this guidance and did not disclose a sexual relationship with a student. As a result, after being subjected to a disciplinary process, he was dismissed summarily (in other words, without notice). He claimed unfair dismissal.

Tribunal and EAT

An employment tribunal found that his dismissal was fair but this conclusion was overturned by the EAT. This was partly because the EAT found that an investigatory report produced as part of the disciplinary process had been heavily influenced and amended by the university’s HR and in-house legal departments. The EAT held that the final version of the investigatory report omitted various findings which were favourable to Dronsfield and that these alterations were made following the HR and in-house legal teams’ involvement.

Although the author of the report had signed it off, the EAT felt that standards of objective fairness had been compromised and that the employment tribunal had failed to consider properly why the author had changed his view on Dronsfield to the employee’s detriment. The case was sent back to the employment tribunal to decide whether it was reasonable to dismiss Dronsfield.


HR and in-house legal teams often provide detailed support and guidance to managers who have been asked to handle disciplinary investigations and hearings. There is nothing improper about this from a practical perspective. It is important to remember, however, that any decisions or recommendations that the manager handling the investigation or disciplinary hearing makes must be his or her own. Where any report produced is subsequently altered following input from HR or legal advisors, an employer would have to be able to show a court or tribunal a clear justification for those changes if the employee decides to challenge the outcome of the disciplinary process.

This case should be read alongside other recent case law on the topic of HR’s remit in disciplinary procedures, in particular the decision in Ramphal v Department for Transport. In that case, the EAT reaffirmed its view that HR’s role should be limited to matters of law and procedure in disciplinary matters. It should always be for the investigating manager to make up his or her mind about the appropriate action in any given case and care should be taken to ensure that any report demonstrates the independence of the manager’s decision.

It goes without saying that if there are multiple versions of documents which say different things, an employment tribunal will scrutinise the evidence carefully to ascertain why the changes were made and who asked for them.


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