Settlement agreements and disciplinary proceedings

Disciplinary proceedings often lead to settlement agreements.

The Supreme Court has recently intervened in relation to one area of disciplinary proceedings

As a general rule, it is not appropriate for the courts to intervene to remedy minor irregularities in the course of disciplinary proceedings between employer and employee. However, the Supreme Court did exactly this in the recent case of West London Mental Health NHS Trust v Chhabra.

The case involved Dr Chhabra who was employed as a consultant psychiatrist. It was alleged that Dr C had breached patient confidentiality by discussing patients and reading medical reports on a train. In accordance with the Trust’s disciplinary policy, which implemented an NHS framework, a case manager and case investigator were appointed.

Dr Chhabra raised concerns over the involvement of the Trust’s associate HR Director. Despite the Trust providing an undertaking that he would not be involved the investigator communicated with the HR Director and accepted his suggested amendments which were highly critical of Dr Chhabra. Following receipt of the report, the manager considered the allegations constituted gross misconduct and a conduct panel was appointed to consider the breaches of confidentiality together with additional breaches (which were outside of the investigators terms of reference, and upon which a finding had not been made).

Due to these procedural deficiencies, Dr Chhabra applied to the High Court for an injunction to prevent the use of the conduct panel.

The Supreme Court granted the injunction. It was highly critical of the procedural irregularities and held that the HR director had gone beyond his remit by suggesting extensive amendments to the report – this was also done in breach of the undertaking.

This intermeddling constituted a breach of the implied right to a fair disciplinary process as well as a breach of the duty of good faith. Furthermore, damages would be insufficient as any potential award would be very limited if Dr Chhabra were to succeed in a claim based on procedural irregularities after her employment was terminated.

This case demonstrates that the Court will depart from the general rule and will intervene when the procedural irregularities are sufficiently serious. The involvement of a HR director who was acting beyond his authority and contrary to an undertaking was held to be sufficiently serious. This demonstrates that disciplinary procedures should be strictly followed and the over-zealous involvement of other personnel who may try to drive the process (and outcome) could result in costly proceedings against employers. If you have been offered a settlement agreement during a disciplinary process but are concerned about the handling of it you should seek full legal advice.

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