Suspension not a repudiatory breach of contract

In the recent case of Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Lambeth v Agoreyo [2019] EWCA Civ 322, the Court of Appeal held that a school did not commit a repudiatory breach of contract when it suspended a teacher in order to investigate allegations against her surrounding the use of unreasonable force against her pupils.

A, a primary school teacher, taught a class of up to 29 children between five and six years of age. Two of A’s pupils presented extremely challenging behaviour. Allegations were made against A that she had used unreasonable force towards one of these two children on three occasions. It was claimed that A had dragged a child out of the classroom or along a corridor, and had carried a child out of the classroom.  Investigations into two of the above allegations were led by the Head Teacher and A was found to have used reasonable force. However, A was suspended following the third incident reported by a teaching assistant. Shortly after her suspension, A resigned and subsequently brought a claim in the county court against the Borough for breach of contract. The claim was on the grounds that her suspension was a repudiatory breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence.

The county court held that the Borough ‘clearly had reasonable and proper cause to suspend the claimant’, and had an overriding duty to protect the children pending a full investigation of the allegations made. This duty, according to the county court, could only be achieved by suspending A until the allegations were fully investigated. Accordingly, A’s case was rejected.

A successfully appealed to the High Court. The High Court considered that the primary issue was whether it was ‘reasonable and necessary’ for A to be suspended from her job as a teacher pending investigation. The High Court found that A’s suspension did breach the implied term of trust and confidence on the basis that it was a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to the ‘stringent’ way in which the complaint had arisen.

The Borough subsequently appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal concluded that there was no breach of the implied term of trust and confidence and that the question of whether it was necessary for the teacher to be suspended, initially raised by the High Court, was an error of law.  The Court of Appeal confirmed that there is no test of necessity when considering suspensions, however declined to comment on whether suspension should be regarded as a neutral act.

While this decision will come as somewhat of a relief to employers after the High Court decision, employers should still take caution before suspending an employee to ensure that all facts have been assessed and there is reasonable and proper cause for doing so.

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