Workplace disciplinary proceedings can be extremely stressful and it is foreseeable that dragging them out unnecessarily can not only be a breach of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures but can also cause psychiatric harm to employees. In one case, a prison officer who had serious allegations of sexual misconduct hanging over him for many months won the right to substantial damages (Marsh v Ministry of Justice).

The middle-aged officer had been caught up in a lengthy police inquiry into alleged inappropriate sexual contact between staff and female inmates at the prison where he worked. Police officers had searched his home and he was suspended from his post. However, no criminal charges were brought against him.

Following the decision not to prosecute him, his suspension was maintained for a further 20 months before he was finally exonerated by a disciplinary panel. He was invited to return to work but, by that time, his mental health had suffered so badly that he was unable to do so. He was eventually dismissed on ill health grounds.

In upholding his damages claim against the Ministry of Justice, the High Court was not satisfied that there had been any sexual misbehaviour on his part. Claims that he had brought drugs and alcohol into the prison were also rejected. In short, he had done nothing that might have justified his dismissal on misconduct grounds.

The Court accepted that there had been no breach of duty in the initial decision to suspend him. However, the disciplinary process had been unreasonably prolonged on the basis that it could not continue until the criminal prosecution of colleagues, including the prison’s governor, was complete. But for that delay, he would have recovered from his psychiatric injury and been able to return to work.

The man was awarded over £286,000 in damages, which included a £23,500 award for his pain, suffering and loss of amenity and compensation for lost earnings as a prison officer up to the age of 65.

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