Leading article: Justice must remain above public anger

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The death of Baby P cast a long shadow, and it is still not going away.

Sharon Shoesmith, the former director of Haringey children's services, yesterday won her case for unfair dismissal at the appeal court, with a judgment that even she can only have dreamt of. She had, the court found, been unlawfully dismissed by the former education secretary and turned into a "public sacrifice".

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, ruled that, while he did not consider her blameless, "she was entitled to be treated lawfully and fairly and not simply summarily scapegoated". The Department for Education – now, of course, under new political management – has said that it will appeal.

This will not be a popular decision, to put it mildly. There was, and remains, fierce public feeling that someone needed to be held to account for the cruel way in which Baby P met his death and that the buck should stop at the very top. Nor did Ms Shoesmith do much to help her cause. She appeared aloof and high-handed; reluctant to accept due responsibility, as the top manager, for what had happened. That she was well – many said, too well – paid, only reinforced public anger.

That a judgment will be unpopular, however, is neither here nor there. Judges exist not to please the mob, but to uphold the law. Without an opportunity to put her case, they found, Ms Shoesmith was "denied the elementary fairness which the law requires". They rejected Ed Balls's submission that the urgency of the situation dictated that he acted as he did.

Mr Balls is unlikely to face any sanction, except in the public memory. It is his former department and the local authority – that is, the taxpayers – that will have to pay. But the appeal court has upheld the principle that any accused person deserves a fair hearing. Every employee should find that reassuring.

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