News just in that Sharon Shoesmith has won her Court of Appeal case against her dismissal following the death of Baby P. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember that I had doubts about the legality of Ms Shoesmith’s dismissal at the time. The judges at the Court of Appeal agreed.
Their judgement makes some pointed comments.
I have little to say about the Secretary of State’s regard to The Sun’s petition. For my part, I do not consider that it was necessarily unlawful for the Secretary of State to have taken it into account. He was legitimately concerned about public confidence and the petition may have had some modest value in that respect. However, it is unlikely that many of its signatories were aware of the complexities of employment law when they demanded dismissal without compensation.
In other words, it’s not illegal to consider the views expressed in a tabloid newspaper’s petition but it is really silly to give in to its demands, especially when it demands that you do something illegal. As I’ve said before, basing policy on media-led hysteria is very expensive.
This bit is just priceless:
We rejected a submission on behalf of the Secretary of State to the effect that the situation was too urgent to permit the adoption of a fairer procedure.
Would any employer try to pull that one? “It was really urgent and my job was on the line, guv, so I decided it was OK to break the law.”
From the summing up:
I cannot leave this case without commenting on the way in which Ms Shoesmith was treated. In another case, Sedley LJ was moved to say:
“It seems that the making of a public sacrifice to deflect press and public obloquy, which is what happened to the appellant, remains an accepted expedient of public administration in this country. (Gibb v Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust  EWCA Civ 678, (at paragraph 42)”
In my view, it is also what happened in the present case. Those involved in areas such as social work and healthcare are particularly vulnerable to such treatment. This is not to say that I consider Ms Shoesmith to be blameless or that I have a view as to the extent of her or anyone else’s blameworthiness. That is not the business of this Court. However, it is our task to adjudicate upon the application and fairness of procedures adopted by public authorities when legitimate causes for concern arise, as they plainly did in this case. Whatever her shortcomings may have been (and, I repeat, I cannot say), she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply and summarily scapegoated.
And my favourite soundbite, which says it all:
“Accountability” is not synonymous with “Heads must roll”.
The judges found that, “Haringey’s decision to dismiss Ms Shoesmith was itself unlawful and void.”
So far, the court has not ruled on compensation but said that it should be at least equivalent to paying Ms Shoesmith’s notice period and possibly “her salary and other benefits from that day [the day of her dismissal] to this.” That’s about two and a half years salary, adding up to something like £340k plus pension and benefits. I can hear the tabloid outcry already.
None of this means that Sharon Shoesmith has won yet. The Secretary of State and Haringey council plan to appeal to the Supreme Court. But, whatever happens, it serves as a warning to ministers who base their decisions on media-led hysteria. Politicians may bend to the will of tabloid editors but judges don’t and, whatever the PR considerations might have been at the time, they will punish you for breaking the law.