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A no-fly zone – EAT finds disciplinary investigation to be unreasonable

It is well known that for a misconduct dismissal to be fair, the employer must have carried out a reasonable investigation into the employee’s alleged misconduct. In the Employment Appeal Tribunal case of Stuart v London City Airport, an employee successfully argued that his employer’s investigation was not reasonable.

London City Airport (LCA) employed Mr Stuart as a ground services agent. At the time of his dismissal, he had 4 years’ service with an unblemished record.

During a break, Mr Stuart went to the duty-free shop to buy some food. According to his account of events, he was then beckoned outside the shop by one of its staff to chat about the weather. At this time, he kept the items he had picked (but not yet paid for) in his hands. He was later stopped by a police officer on suspicion that he had dishonestly removed goods from the shop.

LCA’s subsequent disciplinary investigation centred on statements from two of the shop’s staff, which indicated that Mr Stuart had hidden items under his jacket. The disciplinary hearer preferred this version of events, and dismissed Mr Stuart on grounds of a breach of trust.

Mr Stuart raised a claim for unfair dismissal after his disciplinary appeal was unsuccessful. He complained that during its investigation, LCA had failed to obtain key evidence from the staff member he met outside the shop and the cashier at the till. He also argued that LCA had not looked at the airport’s CCTV.

The Employment Tribunal rejected these arguments and held that LCA’s investigation was reasonable and the dismissal was fair. The EAT, however, agreed with Mr Stuart that LCA had failed to obtain and consider important and potentially exculpatory evidence during its investigation, and upheld his appeal.

This case is a reminder of the importance of carrying out a reasonable investigation. Although it may seem a burden to investigate when an employee’s misconduct already seems clear, the risk of an unfair dismissal award should be kept in mind.

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