Law Report: Teacher's dismissal was invalid: Regina v Secretary of State for Education, Ex parte Prior. Queen's Bench Division (Mr Justice Brooke), 21 December 1993

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Governors of grant-maintained schools, which were statutory corporations, had to conduct dismissal proceedings fairly and in accordance with the law; otherwise their decisions would be invalid and of no effect.

Mr Justice Brooke quashed the Secretary of State for Education's decision not to intervene in respect of the dismissal procedure adopted by Claremont High School, west London, when dismissing the applicant, Robert Prior.

Mr Prior had been a teacher at the school, which obtained grant-maintained status in 1990 under the Education Reform Act 1988, from 1974 until his dismissal by the school governors in 1992. Mr Prior complained that the dismissal procedure was flawed since the chairman of the school staff committee who heard the charges against him had not been properly appointed.

In May 1992, Mr Prior wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to intervene under section 99 of the Education Act 1944 as amended. In April 1993, the Secretary of State decided that since Mr Prior had not alleged any bias and since any defaults in the procedure were primarily of a technical nature, it was not appropriate to intervene. The school was advised about the establishment and appointment of the staff committee.

Robin Allen and Anthony Bradley (Brian Thompson & Co) for Mr Prior; Stephen Richards (Treasury Solicitor) for the Secretary of State for Education; Roger Hiorns (Barlow Lyde & Gilbert) for the school governors.

MR JUSTICE BROOKE said that governors of grant-maintained schools, which were statutory corporations, needed to understand the importance of complying with the law if their actions were not to be declared ultra vires and of no effect in law. The staff committee which determined that Mr Prior should be dismissed was not established by the governing body in accordance with the school's instrument of government.

Under section 99 if the Secretary of State was satisfied that the governors of a grant-maintained school had failed to discharge any duty imposed on them, the Secretary of State might make a order declaring them to be in default and giving them directions.

This was case a which involved the working out of the legal relationship between a teacher and his employers and was a dispute justiciable as a matter of private law. The Secretary of State was entitled to decline to act as a forum for determining disputes between a school and its employees over the legality of a dismissal unless, for instance, he judged that the dispute raised issues of wider application or there were other reasons why he ought to exercise his powers of intervention.

There was nothing technical about the matter of which Mr Prior made complaint. The staff committee had no power to conduct any hearing and had no power to make any decision which had any legal validity.

Mr Prior had complained that the chairman of the staff committee had been appointed by the prosecutor of the charges. The Secretary of State could not reasonably have downplayed the seriousness of Mr Prior's complaint.

Although the governors had probably corrected for the future the mistakes over the appointment of the staff committee and it was open to Mr Prior to seek redress by private law action, it would be inappropriate and unfair if the Secretary of State's decision was not quashed.

The case showed how important it was that the governors of a grant-maintained school should have access to good legal advice before they set in motion dismissal procedures.

The law required that the proceedings should be conducted by a body to whom the governors had lawfully delegated their powers and that they should be conducted in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

It was important that dismissal procedures should be conducted fairly and in accordance with law.