Headteacher cleared of child sex charges could now receive payout for unfair dismissal

A former Essex headteacher who was cleared of serious sex crimes against young children was also unfairly dismissed and could receive compensation, according to a tribunal report.

An employment tribunal judgement found Essex County Council senior directors “fell far short” of a reasonable and careful evaluation of the facts after the man was dismissed, despite being acquitted at crown court around a year previously due to lack of evidence.

According to the report, the authority’s executive director for corporate and customer services, Margret Lee, was criticised for failing “to at least read and consider” the man’s QC’s argument that the children’s evidence was unreliable and was “shooting from the hip” when she made her submissions to the tribunal.

The tribunal judge criticised Essex Police’s handling of the case, which was sparked by parents’ concerns which led the man to being arrested in June 2018 at the unnamed primary school on suspicion that he had sexually abused seven children, the report said.

The man, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was subsequently charged – but on May 30, 2019, following legal arguments about the admissibility of evidence, the crown offered no evidence against the headteacher and he was acquitted.

Essex County Council subsequently took control of the school in order that it, rather than the governors, would be responsible for any disciplinary proceedings.

Tribunal hearing

Following an investigation carried out by the authority the claimant, whose extramarital affair was uncovered in the process of the police investigation, was then summarily dismissed on July 21, 2020. He appealed that decision, but his appeal was dismissed.

A tribunal, which heard evidence in April this year and a report published earlier this month, has now concluded that his “claim for unfair dismissal brought under Part X of the Employment Rights Act 1996 is well founded”.

The consequences of this decision shall be considered at a separate remedy hearing.

The tribunal heard Essex Police had already been harshly criticised for the way they conducted their pre Achieving Best Evidence (ABE) interviews – the way that information had been gleaned from the youngsters – and which referred to the comments from the original trial judge at Basildon Crown Court who said that “lessons must be learnt”.

Her Honour Judge Leigh said at the time that had the full extent of the pre-ABE interviews, carried out by those investigating at the very start, been known: “I doubt seriously whether this case would ever have been charged, as there are fatal gaps in the evidence”.

According to the tribunal report, she added: “The rules and procedures are in place to allow very young witnesses to provide evidence and that was not followed in this case by those investigating, and they should have been, and lessons must be learnt from it.

“There is also another issue that caused me concern, and I’ve never had an answer to this, because one of the complainants made exactly the same allegation against another teacher in exactly the same way, and yet that teacher is a Crown witness.

“That logic simply defies credible explanation. [the Claimant] on the Crown offering no evidence, leaves this court as he started, with the presumption of innocence, and that’s how he leaves the dock.”

Combined efforts of officials ‘fell far short’

As for the way the county council conducted its own investigations led by Norma Howes, a child protection expert, Jo Reed, an external HR advisor, Clare Kershaw, director of education at the authority and Margret Lee, Employment Judge John Crosfill admitted “there was evidence from children that suggested some inappropriate behaviour”.

But he added: “Against that there was evidence there was considerable evidence that went the other way.

“What was required was a reasonable and careful evaluation of that evidence. I regret to say that the combined efforts of Norma Howes, Jo Reed, Clare Kershaw and Margret Lee fell far short of that.”

He added: “I accept that the respondent (ECC) inherited the police investigation which had not been handled properly. I have concluded that on the evidence available the First Respondent (ECC) could not reasonably have concluded that the claimant acted inappropriately towards the named children.”

He reserved mention for Margret Lee, who has a £157,833 annual salary, over whether the county council would or have fairly dismissed the teacher.

He said: “I am not bound to accept Margret Lee’s evidence. I find that Margret Lee was simply shooting from the hip.

“I am not asking whether Margret Lee would have dismissed the claimant but whether she would have done so fairly.

“What was required was a very careful evaluation of the evidence.

“She did not give any indication in her evidence that she recognised how flawed her analysis was.

“I simply cannot accept that at the conclusion of her evidence she had accepted that it was and had taken all the criticism on board.”

What Essex County Council and Essex Police say

An Essex County Council spokesperson said: “We are aware of the judgement of the recent tribunal between a former headteacher and Essex County Council.

“We are currently seeking further legal advice on this matter and are unable to comment further until this process reaches a conclusion.”

Neil Pudney, Detective Superintendent at Essex Police, said: “We continually look for ways to improve our process in order achieve justice for victims of crime.

“We have more than 110 ABE trained officers and have introduced new training relating to taking ABEs.

“We also have a multi-agency working group – involving social care, the CPS, and academics – which specifically looks at the ABE process and how it can be improved which has led to notable changes in the last 12 to 18 months.

“This has included looking at the role of the second interviewer to improve their involvement in the capture of an ABE interview.

“We meet regularly with judges to discuss issues they are seeing during trials relating to interview and evidence capture to identify where we can improve.

“And we are also working closely with the CPS and put in place an early advice protocol 12 months ago ensuring we’re seeking their view earlier in cases more often to improve the quality of the evidence and file we’re presenting to them.

“Regionally, 43 per cent of all early advice sought from the CPS is now from Essex Police and we’re seeing this is having a really positive impact on our investigations.

“Supervisors also have a check sheet they need to go through before submitting an ABE to the CPS to ensure its quality.

“We are also utilising new measures to better protect victims by allowing evidence of vulnerable victims or witnesses to be pre-recorded at an early stage, before trial.

“These new measures, known as Section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, was launched in Essex in August 2020 and has helped convict a number of people for child sex offences.

“We will continue to look for ways to improve and our procedures are regularly reviewed.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter