Reader may sue despite settlement

Academic who signed agreement can still take action against Essex. Melanie Newman writes

March 20, 2008

An academic has won the right to sue her university for constructive dismissal - even though she signed a "compromise agreement" and agreed a £30,000 severance payment.

Angela Ward had worked as a reader in law at the University of Essex for six years when her manager raised concerns about complaints from students.

In response, Dr Ward wrote a "without prejudice" letter to her employer in which she raised a number of complaints against the university but offered an "amicable withdrawal" in return for a negotiated package.

A payment of £30,000 was agreed, and she signed a compromise agreement.

After signing the agreement, Dr Ward wrote another letter of complaint to the university. Matters raised included "infirmities in the examination process" in the law department. She claimed that colleagues had revealed the content of exam papers, putting her in an impossible position, that complaints against her were groundless and that university procedures had not been followed.

Dr Ward later decided to sue the university for constructive and unfair dismissal, telling an employment tribunal that the compromise agreement was invalid because she had signed it under pressure.

The university argued that Dr Ward had not followed procedures by raising a formal grievance and that her claim was therefore out of time, as she had left the university more than three months earlier. It also argued that if she had raised a grievance, it was invalidated by the compromise agreement.

The first tribunal agreed with Essex. But the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that the "without prejudice" letter was a valid grievance as it detailed the substance of her complaints in writing. The fact that it contained an offer to settle did not affect this. If a grievance is started, a claimant is given an extra three months to file his or her claim.

Dr Ward's solicitor, James Tait of Shakespeare Putsman, said: "A properly drafted compromise agreement will preclude a tribunal claim. Essex did not draft the agreement properly, and neither did it deal with the grievance. It left itself wide open."

If a grievance is raised by an employee and not dealt with by the employer, the compensation awarded in a successful claim may be increased by up to 50 per cent.

A spokesperson for Essex said: "The university has robust quality assurance procedures in place. However it is not our policy to comment on ongoing cases, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal has now referred this case back to the Employment Tribunal."

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