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Case update (2):  When investigation meetings are (not) necessary

Summary:  Is there a legal requirement to hold a separate investigation meeting before a disciplinary meeting in order for a dismissal to be fair?

No says the EAT in Sunshine Hotel Ltd t/a Palm Court Hotel v Goddard, available here.  The requirement is to carry out such investigation as is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Facts:  Mr Goddard, the employee, was a hotel night porter, for the employer, Sunshine Hotel Ltd.  Mr Goddard was suspended to allow for an investigation into alleged gross misconduct after he was found sleeping on duty. The investigation constituted a review of CCTV footage. Once the investigation was concluded, Mr Goddard was invited to an “investigation meeting”, which was in fact a disciplinary hearing. Mr Goddard was summarily dismissed at this hearing

Mr Goddard brought Tribunal claims for unfair and wrongful dismissal.

The Tribunal upheld the claim for unfair dismissal, on the basis that the employer had failed to carry out a sufficient investigation into the allegations to make the dismissal fair.  In particular, there was no separate investigation hearing followed by a separate and distinct disciplinary hearing.

The employer appealed, arguing that the Tribunal had incorrectly found that an investigatory meeting was a prerequisite for a fair dismissal and that this was wrong in law.

The EAT agreed with the employer that there is no specific requirement in the ACAS Code of Practice, the Employment Rights Act or case law for there to be separate investigation and disciplinary hearings in every case. What is required is as much investigation into the matter as is reasonable in all the circumstances. The EAT criticised the Tribunal’s suggestion that separate investigatory and disciplinary hearings are required in every case by right.

However, the EAT found that, in this case, the Tribunal did have the correct “reasonableness” test in mind when it found that the employer’s investigation did not meet the standard. It reached its decision on the basis that there had not been a proper investigation, and the EAT upheld the finding of unfair dismissal.

Implications:  This decision confirms that an investigation meeting is not always necessary for a fair dismissal.  This is in line with the ACAS Code (paragraph 5) which states that “in some cases this will require the holding of an investigatory meeting with the employee before proceeding to any disciplinary hearing. In others, the investigatory stage will be the collation of evidence by the employer for use at any disciplinary hearing”.

Although nearly all cases will involve an investigation of some sort, the amount of investigation required will vary depending on the individual circumstances.  In relatively straightforward cases, for example, it wouldn’t be considered unreasonable to hold only one disciplinary hearing (provided the employer has presented the employee with full details of the allegations made against them).

However, in more complex cases, it is unlikely that an investigation would be found to be reasonable without an investigation meeting with the employee in advance of the disciplinary hearing.

We also recommend that employers check if their employees have a contractual right to an investigatory meeting before a disciplinary hearing – this might be set out in the employment contract, staff handbook or collective agreement. If such a right exists, a failure to adhere to it would be a breach of contract and could also potentially lead to a finding of unfair dismissal.


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