How to deal with convictions for sexual offences committed by a person associated with the employee

Judgments of the Supreme Court concerning employment law issues are fairly infrequent and usually worthy of attention. That is certainly so in the recent case of Reilly v Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council which concerned an individual convicted of the surprisingly common offence of downloading indecent images of children.

Ms Reilly was the deputy head teacher of a primary school. She was in a close but not sexual relationship with a Mr Selwood and they did not live together. In 2003 they bought a property in joint names as an investment and Mr Selwood lived there, although he did not make any payments to Ms Reilly. Ms Reilly did not live there but she occasionally stayed overnight, including on 24 February 2009 when, the following morning, she awoke to the arrival of the police who searched the property and arrested Mr Selwood on suspicion of having downloaded indecent images of children. In September Ms Reilly was promoted to the post of head teacher at the school and in February 2010 Mr Selwood was convicted of making indecent images of children by downloading. On a scale of 1-5, the images ranged from level 1 to level 4. He was sentenced to a three year community order, made the subject of a sexual offences prevention order (which included a ban on him having unsupervised access to minors) and he was required to take part in a sex offenders’ programme.

Ms Reilly was immediately aware of the conviction and sentence but chose not to disclose them to the school governors or the local authority. In June 2010 the authority became aware of the conviction and she was suspended on full pay. She was required to attend a disciplinary hearing, the allegation being that, in failing to disclose her relationship with a man convicted of sexual offences concerning children, she had committed a serious breach of an implied term of her contract of employment, sufficient to warrant dismissal for gross misconduct. Following a hearing in May 2011 she was summarily dismissed. The panel was particularly concerned that Ms Reilly continued to refuse to accept that her continued association with Mr Selwood might pose a risk to children at the school. Her appeal against her dismissal failed.

A family (business) at war

If, like me, you have been enjoying Kay Mellor’s comedy drama Girlfriends on ITV, you may have cringed at some of the artistic licence deployed when dealing with aspects of the age discrimination claim being brought by Miranda Richardson’s character against her boss (and lover), played by Anthony Head. However, it has neatly highlighted the particular difficulties that can arise when workplace disputes get a bit too close to home.

A real life family dispute has been playing out in the Manchester Employment Tribunal and, more recently, in the Employment Appeal Tribunal. There is a major clue in the name of the case: Mrs J Feltham, B Feltham (Maintenance) Limited and Ms H Feltham v Feltham Management Limited, Mr D Feltham and Mr M Feltham. Feltham Management is a long established family business, specialising in property management, particularly in respect of student lettings. Jane Feltham is the claimant. She has three brothers, David, Martin and Stephen, all of whom were respondents in the Employment Tribunal claim. They all worked for the family business which was founded by their father. Hazel, the adult child of David, worked for the company as a clerical assistant and Jane’s husband was Mr Eckersall, a self-employed joiner who did work for the company.

In August 2013 it came to light that Mr Eckersall had been sending inappropriate texts and Facebook messages to his niece, Hazel. On the same day he told his wife, Jane, that he was leaving her because he had feelings for Hazel. Jane confronted Hazel, accusing her of inappropriate conduct, but she denied that she had done anything wrong. Jane’s brother David got involved and told Jane that if was her fault because she did not take Mr Eckersall’s name on marriage, did not respect him as head of the household and suggested that these (among other reasons) were why he wanted Hazel. Jane was upset and left work. She did not return.

With support from David, Hazel took over Jane’s duties as office manager. The company stopped paying Jane from the end of August, but she remained a director as well as continuing to receive benefits including a company car and credit card.

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