High Court: Decision to dismiss principal of national school was fundamentally flawed



High Court
High Court

A woman who worked as a school principal in a small national school for twenty years has been granted an order of certiorari, quashing the decision of the Board of Management to dismiss her.

Finding that the Board had failed to give adequate reasons for their decision, Mr Justice Anthony Barr also criticised the Board for failing to engage with the recommendation of the Disciplinary Appeals Panel to reinstate the principal.

Background

The applicant, CD, qualified as a primary school teacher in 1986 and worked in a small rural school as one of two teachers from 1996 to 2018. In 1998 she became principal of the school, and thereafter worked as both principal and teacher. In April 2016, CD was placed on administrative leave and in March 2018 the Board of Management informed her that she was dismissed.

In the High Court, CD sought an order of certiorari quashing the decision of the Board of Management to dismiss her from her position.

Allegations made by Special Needs Assistant

In September 2015, a Special Needs Assistant (SNA) with over 20 years’ experience began working at the school. In March 2016, the SNA informed a member of the Board of Management that she had concerns about a number of incidents involving CD and two of her students – one of the students was a 4-year-old girl (Child A) and the other was a 9-year-old boy (Child B). Thereafter, the SNA outlined a series of allegations concerning CD’s treatment of the two students.

One of the allegations involved an incident where the class were out on a school trip in the local village, and Child A refused to hold the hand of either the SNA or CD. On one occasion, Child A ran off and had to be caught by the SNA. Since there was a lot of traffic, CD held the cuff of Child A’s cardigan and caused it to stretch as she was holding it tightly. The SNA alleged that when they returned to the school, Child A was sitting at her desk crying and the cuff of the cardigan had made read marks on her wrist. The SNA complained that CD had held the cardigan too tightly. Further complaints in relation to Child A included allegations that CD had stood on her toes, had scratched her hand, had been forced to stand during her lunch break, and had made comments which caused the rest of the class to dislike Child A.

CD disputed all of the allegations and gave alternative explanations which at some points “should have given the Board pause for thought when considering the accuracy and validity of the other allegations made by the SNA”. Indeed, Mr Justice Barr commented that, in relation to the incident on the school trip, many parents would have preferred a stretched cardigan than for their child to get hit by a car.

The claims about CD’s behaviour towards Child B included allegations that he was left to do work that was too difficult for him, and that he was regularly kept in to do work which only a secondary school student could do. Further allegations were that CD made inappropriate comments relating to his weight.

Again, CD disputed all the allegations in relation to Child B, and further submitted that the Board should have considered the fact that she had an unblemished teaching record and there had never been any parental complaint lodged against her.

It was also significant that “none of the parents had raised any concerns with the school about any inappropriate behaviour or mistreatment of their daughter or son” and in September 2016 “Tusla had investigated the matter and had closed their files without any further action”, stating that the evidence did not reach the threshold for the social work department to remain involved.

Hopelessly inadequate reasons given

The Board placed CD on administrative leave while an investigation was carried out.  This culminated in a disciplinary hearing in February 2018, after which, the Board made the decision that CD should be dismissed from her post.

CD appealed to the Disciplinary Appeals Panel (DAP), which found in her favour and recommended that she should be reinstated as principal immediately. However, the Board rejected this recommendation and confirmed its decision to dismiss.

In the High Court, CD argued that the investigation process was fundamentally flawed, and the decision arrived at was irrational, unreasonable and unlawful. The core complaint was that the Board failed to give any or adequate reasons why they had reached their decision – there was no proper evaluation of the evidence, and she was not told what allegations had actually been proven against her. Furthermore, CD submitted that the rejection of the DAP recommendation was bad in law having regard to established case law.

Commenting that he had “considerable sympathy for the people who found themselves on the Board of Management of this school in the period 2016 – 2018”, Mr Justice Barr noted that they were lay people who may not have had any legal experience and had the simple desire to help running their local school.

However, pursuant to their role under the Education Act 1998, they had to adjudicate the matter by engaging “with all of the evidence in a rational and fair manner”. Mr Justice Barr said they could only have demonstrated doing so by giving reasons – which they did not do. As such, Mr Justice Barr was satisfied that the decision to dismiss should be set aside

Describing the reasons given to CD as “hopelessly inadequate”, Mr Justice Barr noted that one Board member’s reasoning was “because the children in case have blossomed since”. He said that “to tell a principal that they were being dismissed because some unspecified children had blossomed in some unspecified way since they had departed, was both irrelevant and irrational”.

Mr Justice Barr also said that the outright rejection of the DAP recommendation, with which “there was no logical or constructive engagement”, was another ground on which the decision should be set aside. In this regard, it was explained that the DAP findings were reached on a unanimous basis and had not recommended “any lesser sanction, but instead made a definitive recommendation that the applicant should immediately be reinstated to her position as principal”.

Considering Kelly v Board of Management of St. Joseph’s National School, Valleymount [2013] IEHC 392, Mr Justice said “the fact that the DAP, which is a highly experienced and qualified body with an independent chair, had reached its findings and recommendation on a unanimous basis, was something which ought to have been given considerable weight”.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020



Other judgments by Mr Justice Anthony Barr