Teacher sacked for staying with ‘voyeur’ husband wins appeal

15 July 2016

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A TEACHER (“the claimant”) who was dismissed when she refused to leave her husband, after he was convicted of voyeurism and making indecent images of children, was the victim of indirect belief discrimination, an Employment Appeal Tribunal has ruled. She had refused to leave him because of her belief in the sanctity of marriage.

The claimant was a qualified teacher employed by Derbyshire County Council at one of its schools, where she taught a Year 6 class of ten to 11-year-olds. She had an unblemished disciplinary record, and was well respected and highly regarded by her colleagues, her students, and their parents. She was also a committed and practising Anglican Christian.

In 2002 she married her husband, Matthew Pendleton, who subsequently became head teacher at a school that was part of the same cluster group as the school at which the claimant taught. In January 2013 he was arrested on suspicion of downloading indecent images of children, and voyeurism. The voyeurism charges related to his having taken a camera secreted within a pen into the boys’ changing room at his school, and having taken photographs of young boys in a state of undress. He was charged and convicted of those offences, and sentenced to a term of ten months’ imprisonment, starting in July 2013. He served half that sentence.

There was no suggestion that the claimant had known of her husband’s activities before his arrest. She was shocked and distressed, and, in the immediate aftermath of his arrest, left the marital home to stay with her parents. She took a period of leave from work, and was initially reassured by her head teacher that her job would remain open.

Later, while not condoning or giving the impression of condoning her husband’s activities, the claimant decided that she would, consistent with her marriage vows, specifically her commitment in the presence of God, for better or for worse, stay with her husband provided she was satisfied that he had demonstrated unequivocal repentance.

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A meeting was then held at County Hall, where the claimant was told by her head teacher that if she intended to stay with her husband there would be consequences. When she asked whether she was being invited to choose between her marriage vows and her career, she was met with shrugs and raised eyebrows. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced against her on a charge of potential gross misconduct.

The claimant made clear that she did not wish to leave the school and jeopardise her career, but considered that she had done nothing wrong, was a separate person from her husband, had an exemplary track record, and did not present a risk. She was summarily dismissed on the ground that the choices she had made in her personal life were in direct contravention of the ethos of the school.

The initial Employment Tribunal ruled that her dismissal was unfair, but ruled that she had not suffered indirect belief discrimination, because the claimant would have been dismissed irrespective of whether she held a belief in the sanctity of her marriage vows.

The claimant appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which ruled that she had suffered indirect discrimination on the grounds of her religious belief. Religion and belief are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Her Honour Judge Eady QC said that comparing two groups, both comprising individuals in long-term, loving, and committed relationships, facing the same difficult circumstances as arose in the claimant’s case, and given the choice of remaining with their husband or with their career, but one group also holding a religious belief in the sanctity of their marriage vows, the latter group had an additional burden and a particular disadvantage.

That was not to suggest, the judge added, that any less respect should be given to those in a loving and committed relationship, whether married or not, but who did not share the same view as the claimant as to the sanctity of marriage vows. But those sharing the claimant’s belief would suffer a particular disadvantage given the crisis of conscience they would face. Equally, there might be other forms of belief which could give rise to a particular disadvantage in the same circumstances.

The claimant succeeded in her appeal, and the judge ruled that in addition to being unfairly dismissed, she had also suffered indirect belief discrimination.

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