The willingness of the courts to intervene in disciplinary disputes has taken a further step forward in the recent decision of the High Court in Chhabra v West London Mental Health NHS in which members of Old Square Chambers represented both parties.
The case concerned breaches by the doctor of patient confidentiality and teamworking problems, which were investigated by the Trust. The teamworking problems were agreed to be matters of capability to be referred to the National Clinical Advisory Service. In relation to the confidentiality concerns, the case investigator accepted the doctorís account that she had not appreciated that her conduct in relation to patient information had breached confidentiality. The Trustís Medical Director invited the doctor to a disciplinary hearing to consider whether her employment should be terminated by reason of gross misconduct in relation to the confidentiality breaches.
The High Court held that the proposed hearing amounted to a breach of the doctorís contract and injuncted the Trust from proceeding. The case manager was obliged in accordance with MHPS to make a decision on the way forward based solely on the material in the investigation report. Here, the acceptance by the case investigator that the doctor did not appreciate that she was breaching confidentiality precluded a charge of gross misconduct. The Court went further and held that given the doctor had accepted the allegations against her, the Trust was contractually obliged to deal with the concerns in accordance with its Fair Blame procedure for use in cases of less serious misconduct.
The Court also held that the Trust could not deal with the confidentiality concerns separately from the capability process being applied to the teamworking concerns.
Following the decision of the Supreme Court in Edwards v Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust that damages cannot be obtained for dismissal in breach of contract, the availability of an injunction to restrain a disciplinary procedure which breaches the contract is likely to become of increasing importance in the employment sphere.
Mark Sutton QC and Betsan Criddle acted for Dr Chhabra, instructed by Alex Leslie and Stewart Duffy of RadcliffesLeBrasseur. Louise Chudleigh acted for the Trust, instructed by Gary Hay of Capsticks.
Case Summary written by
, Old Square Chambers. Click Here for a full version of the judgment.