Whistleblowers: Sacked lecturer makes history with challenge

March 29, 2002

A lecturer sacked by Surrey University after he complained to the vice-chancellor about harassment and mismanagement in his department is to go back to court in higher education's first known tribunal case under the law to protect whistleblowers.

The THES reported in July last year that Geoffrey Darnton had lost his landmark case against Surrey, in which he claimed he had been victimised for complaining about the behaviour of his manager, Paul Gamble, head of the Surrey European Management School. Mr Darnton has won leave to appeal against the decision, after enlisting free support from Michael Kallipetis QC.

Eight days after Mr Darnton wrote his complaint against Professor Gamble in January 2000, he was told by SEMS's then deputy head, Peter Kangis:

"Following your recent letters to the vice-chancellor and to the chairman of the council, we consider that the basis of trust between us has broken down. In these circumstances your services will not be required."

Mr Darnton had complained that Professor Gamble had prevented staff from making constructive criticism in the department, had refused to clarify procedures and had "harassed and bullied" him and others.

In November 2000, The THES was threatened by Surrey with an injunction when it published a letter from Professor Gamble in which he told Mr Darnton not to "advance open criticisms to me and to my colleagues", and warned him that his future at the school was up for review.

The London South tribunal said that Mr Darnton's belief that Professor Gamble was "abrasive, arbitrary and sometimes unreasonable" was "shared by some of his colleagues" and acknowledged that Professor Gamble's style of management had "clearly upset some members of staff".

The tribunal took evidence from the university's independent harassment officer, who said that three staff had made allegations of harassment against Professor Gamble. But the tribunal said Professor Gamble "enjoyed the support of the authorities" at Surrey and "had a right" to support from his staff. The university said he had behaved professionally throughout.

Since the hearing, another former member of staff at SEMS has begun tribunal proceedings alleging unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.

The tribunal found that the abrupt end to Mr Darnton's work at SEMS was "undoubtedly a detriment" under the terms of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, but ruled that the complaint to the vice-chancellor was not the kind of disclosure that attracts legal protection under the act.

Staff are offered legal protection for blowing the whistle only if it is done in good faith, to the prescribed bodies, and only for disclosing specific types of problems, such as a breach of the law.

The tribunal said it was not sure the complaint had been made in good faith.

Surrey said at the time that it was "gratified" that its reputation as a fair employer had been cleared, and that Professor Gamble was found to be "blameless".

In his notice of appeal, Mr Darnton's QC argues that the tribunal failed to consider whether Mr Darnton had a reasonable belief that Professor Gamble's conduct was harassment, prohibited under the 1997 Harassment Act, and therefore a breach of the law. He also argues that the tribunal failed to properly consider whether Mr Darnton had a reasonable belief that Professor Gamble's conduct was a breach of his employment contracts, and that the tribunal failed to properly take account of evidence of other harassment allegations against Professor Gamble. It also failed to apply the correct test to judge whether Mr Darnton had made his complaint in good faith.

Giving permission to appeal, Judge D. Pugsley said: "We think there is at least an arguable ground that (Mr Darnton's letter of complaint to the vice-chancellor) was arguably a protected disclosure."

Judge Pugsley said he believed it was arguable that the tribunal did not use the appropriate test to decide whether Mr Darnton had made his complaint in good faith.

A spokesman for the university said: "Geoffrey Darnton is being (granted) leave to appeal on the grounds that there was a 'protected disclosure'. This is something the original hearing found against." He said that the second tribunal case from another member of SEMS staff, alleging unfair dismissal, "is being rigorously contested by the university".

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