Case law updates

British Council official unfairly dismissed following “severely flawed” investigation

An employment tribunal has concluded that an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment that led to dismissal was “severely flawed”, with instances of  evidence being ignored, including six witness accounts suggesting that the alleged incident had not occurred.

Paul Sellers, who headed up the British Council office in Italy, was accused by the complainant of drunkenly kissing her on the lips and “stroking” her breasts with both hands as she left a Christmas party hosted at his flat in Rome. Sellers argued that he had done no more than give her a kiss on both cheeks in the traditional Italian greeting or farewell.

Following a formal complaint, the British Council undertook an investigation into his conduct, which ultimately ended in him being dismissed  in May 2019.

The tribunal felt that the senior British Council officer who headed the investigation, had taken a “narrow view” of the incident based only on the complainant’s account rather than looking at the full circumstances surrounding it.

Following the hearing where Sellers was dismissed, he appealed and a further investigation took place. The tribunal concluded that in this follow-up investigation  “there appeared to be little attempt to clarify exactly where the incident took place”, or to investigate why text messages sent by the female complainant to friends following the alleged incident did not refer to the sexual assault.

However the appeal was not upheld and the dismissal stayed in place, despite further evidence being submitted later that there was “limited physical contact” between the complainant and Sellers, and confirming that it had taken place in the view of a number of other guests. Requests for a further appeal were turned down.

In his conclusion, the Tribunal said “this is a misconduct case where the conduct in question is disputed”, and referred to numerous flaws into how the allegations were investigated and evidence collected. He added, “In this case, the investigation is characterised by serious oversights and unreasonable assumptions. No reasonable employer would have failed to seek the relevant contemporaneous documentation, or to explore the circumstances of the alleged assault, or to seek relevant evidence from witnesses to the alleged incident.”