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Employment Tribunals’ Role Widely Misunderstood

In a case which yet again underlined the wisdom of taking professional advice before embarking on employment tribunal proceedings, a former charity worker has failed in his marathon unfair dismissal claim after the Court of Appeal ruled that his case was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the law.

White VanThe van driver, who worked for a well-known national charity, had been issued with a final warning in respect of his poor driving.  Whilst that warning remained in force, a member of the public had complained to the charity that one of its drivers had driven dangerously and ‘almost killed’ him. Following an internal investigation, the charity found that the van driver – despite his vehement denials – had been behind the wheel at the relevant time and dismissed him on grounds of gross misconduct.

The van driver claimed that he was elsewhere at the time and that it was a case of mistaken identity. An employment tribunal initially upheld his unfair dismissal claim; however that decision was later overturned by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT). Following a reconsideration at a further tribunal hearing, his claim was dismissed and the EAT subsequently rejected his challenge to that decision.

In its ruling, the EAT noted that it was not its task to decide whether the van driver was or was not responsible for the dangerous driving alleged, but whether his employer had reasonable grounds for believing that he was. That, observed the EAT, was a classic demonstration of a limitation on the tribunal’s role that so often proved difficult for ordinary working people to understand and accept.

In dismissing the van driver’s appeal against that decision, the Court found that the tribunal had impeccably directed itself on the law. The charity had carried out a reasonable investigation and had had an honest belief that it had reasonable grounds for the finding of misconduct. The tribunal had also found that his dismissal was the response of a reasonable employer.

Although the van driver said that he would ‘go to his grave’ insisting that he was not driving the van at the relevant time, the Court noted that that was not the issue and found that his appeal had no prospect of success. The judge noted: “I acknowledge that he plainly feels strongly about what happened and I do not question his good faith. However, there is absolutely nothing that this court can do for him as a matter of law”.