The Court of Appeal held a school had 'reasonable and proper cause' to suspend a teacher pending a formal investigation into misconduct allegations and that suspension was not, in the circumstances, a breach of contract.
Lambeth LBC v Agoreyo
Ms Agoreyo was a Year 2 teacher with 15 years' experience. Her class contained two children who presented behavioural challenges. Ms Agoreyo requested additional support and training to help deal with the challenges but these were not provided. Five weeks into her employment, Ms Agoreyo was suspended pending investigation of three allegations that she had used unreasonable force to remove the children from her classroom. She resigned on the same day, claiming that the suspension breached the implied term of mutual trust and confidence in her contract of employment. She subsequently brought a breach of contract claim against her employer.
What Did the Courts Say?
The County Court found that the allegations were so serious that the school was bound to suspend her in the circumstances. The High Court overturned that decision, stating that it was not "reasonable and/or necessary" for Ms Agoreyo to be suspended and that suspension had been a knee-jerk reaction. The High Court therefore held that the suspension did breach Ms Agoreyo's contract. The Court of Appeal held that the question was whether there was "reasonable and proper cause" for suspension and this would always be highly fact specific. The Court of Appeal held that it was permissible for the County Court to conclude that suspension was reasonable. The Court of Appeal held that the High Court should not have considered whether suspension was 'necessary' and then substituted its own view for that of the County Court. As the County Court's finding that suspension was reasonable was reinstated, suspension did not amount to a breach of trust and confidence.
Best Practice for Employers
This case re-emphasises that suspension can be a breach of contract and that any decision to suspend must be reasonable, with proper cause and not a knee-jerk response. Careful consideration will always need to be given to what an employer is seeking to achieve by suspension and that suspension is a reasonable way of achieving that aim. It is also helpful if employers can point to general contractual rights to suspend. Although contractual rights to suspend still need to be exercised reasonably, they assist with rebutting arguments that suspension is itself a breach of contract.