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£40k awarded to former acting principal of St Stephen’s House for unfair dismissal

08 July 2022

The Revd Dr James Lawson was summarily dismissed in 2019 for alleged gross misconduct


The Prince of Wales with Canon Robin Ward, during a visit to St Stephen’s House in Oxford in 2013

The Prince of Wales with Canon Robin Ward, during a visit to St Stephen’s House in Oxford in 2013

A FORMER Acting Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, has been awarded compensation of £40,292 by an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.

The Revd Dr James Lawson was Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Stoke Newington Common, before taking up a post in 2017 as Vice-Principal and Director of Pastoral Studies at St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

He was summarily dismissed in 2019 for alleged gross misconduct, because he had failed to make a record of a survivor’s disclosure of abuse by a priest. The abuse was said to have taken place several years earlier and been investigated at the time.

Judge Sarah Moor, in the Watford Employment Tribunal, which heard Dr Lawson’s complaint of unfair dismissal, said that the case took place “against the background of the Anglican Church having had a poor history of dealing with disclosures about abuse, particularly sexual abuse”.

In late 2017, Dr Lawson was told that he was to be the designated safeguarding lead at St Stephen’s once he had completed Level 3 training. In December 2017, he completed a six-hour training course. It established some basic good practice, including that all disclosures of abuse should be recorded with actual words used, actions taken, and dates.

Dr Lawson, however, who had never dealt with a sex-abuse allegation, was not provided with the job description of a designated safeguarding officer as required by the safeguarding policy at St Stephen’s; nor did he receive the mandatory Level 4 training for designated safeguarding leads in educational institutions.

When the Principal, Canon Robin Ward, went on sabbatical leave in 2019, Dr Lawson was appointed Acting Principal. During that period, he was approached by a survivor, referred to only as X, who claimed to have been physically abused as a child, by a former priest.

Dr Lawson understood from X that the matter had been investigated at the time, that the abuse was very much in the past and was “historic” abuse, that the priest concerned was no longer in the ministry, and that there was no risk to X or others. From what X said, Dr Lawson understood that it was not a disclosure of sexual abuse.

That was the only experience that Dr Lawson had had of dealing on his own with a disclosure of clerical abuse. He did not make a note of the disclosure or report it to the diocesan safeguarding adviser. Dr Lawson’s training did not cover the specific situation of a disclosure of abuse that had been dealt with and where the alleged perpetrator was no longer in active ministry.

Dr Lawson arranged effective pastoral support for X in the form of counselling paid for by the diocese, and X thanked him for his “fantastic support”. His pastoral support for X was not in question, the judge said, and was plainly a great help.

The counsellor subsequently found that there was a “live” element to the abuse of X, in that the perpetrator was in touch with X and had offered money. Dr Lawson could not provide a note of X’s original disclosures; nor had the counsellor made a contemporaneous note of X’s disclosures.

When Canon Ward returned from sabbatical, he spoke to X and obtained an account of the abuse. It was agreed from X’s disclosures to Canon Ward that the matter was live and serious. Dr Lawson was dismissed after a short meeting with Canon Ward. He was not warned that the meeting was about a disciplinary or capability hearing, and was handed a letter of dismissal which had been drafted before the meeting.

The judge said that it was clear that Mr Lawson had had no opportunity to be accompanied at the meeting; that he was given no information beforehand about the nature or purpose of the meeting or what allegations he faced; he was given no prior warning that he might face dismissal at the meeting; he was given no opportunity to respond to the information gathered by Canon Ward; and he had no knowledge that the decision had already been taken to dismiss him.

“Absolutely no courtesy was shown to him,” the judge said. She was also critical of some of the evidence given on behalf of St Stephen’s House. She found that Dr Lawson had “the hallmarks of a reliable witness” who “willingly made concessions against himself” and “straightforwardly and directly answered questions put to him”.

Dr Lawson’s dismissal was unreasonable and procedurally unfair, the judge ruled. She added that she hoped that the college would take from the experience of this litigation “a basic rule of thumb in its dealings with employees in future: for managers to treat their subordinates as they would wish to be treated themselves”.

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