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Lecturer 'denied natural justice';FE Focus

A review finds St Austell College guilty of mismanagement in its handling of a sexual assault charge. Ngaio Crequer reports

A lecturer accused of a serious sexual assault on a colleague was suspended while his college carried out a botched inquiry which lasted three years, according to a report made public for the first time today.

The failure of St Austell College to handle events properly led ministers to order an independent review. Professor Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, investigated and found that a breach of natural justice, partisanship, "investigator as prosecutor" and mismanagement had occurred.

A female member of staff, referred to as X, accused Keith Tregenna, who was a NATFHE branch secretary, of a serious sexual assault in 1993. The police were not called in, and Mr Tregenna originally was not told the identity of his accuser.

During the inquiry, X admitted she had falsified her A-level qualifications when applying for her teaching job. Mr Tregenna was suspended but then won his appeal, although the wording of the decision - "a less than ringing endorsement of his innocence", according to Professor Newby - left a sense of grievance and he pursued the matter with the Department for Education and Employment.

In his report, Professor Newby said that the college's principal, William Hill, acted reasonably in suspending Mr Tregenna, as he had a duty of care to other staff; but the college did not have the necessary disciplinary procedures to handle the issue.

The principal's role as investigator and decision-taker was raised with the college's legal advisers on five occasions. They advised him to be "even-handed", but according to the report the best option would have been for the police to have been called in as the matter was beyond the competence of the college.

Mr Hill said his legal advice was that "natural justice is not infringed if gross misconduct concerning sexual assault is considered within internal disciplinary hearings". Professor Newby commented: "This is unexceptionable in so far as it goes, however, but I would add 'provided investigations and hearings are properly conducted'.

"Without this addition I have to say that the principal's comment corresponds to no legal advice given to the college that I have seen ...

"I do not doubt that the college had to act on X's allegations. The action it had to take was to carry out a fair investigation. Any failure to have done so would have jeopardised both the alleged perpetrator, who might have been unjustly punished, and of course the alleged victim, who may have seen a perpetrator escape punishment." A reasonable employer should have known they could not carry out a fair investigation in the circumstances.

The confidentiality undertaking given to X meant the disciplinary hearing would be held in private and no information would be made known to anyone other than the participants. Mr Hill could not interview anyone below "third tier" within the college.

It was wholly admirable that the college provided the protection of confidentiality to X, reports Professor Newby. But he adds: "In my view, the principal allowed his duty of care to X to prevail to a degree which prevented Mr Tregenna from organising a defence."

Mr Tregenna was seriously disadvantaged in defending himself: he did not know the name of his accuser, so could not assert she was lying, could not attribute motive, nor attack credibility.

"He had no date for the alleged attack, so it was virtually impossible to put forward an alibi. Nor, as a result, could he show other members of staff were around, or nearby classrooms in use. Initially he was prevented from approaching potential witnesses at all, including his wife. In my opinion there was very clearly a serious breach of natural justice during this period," says Professor Newby.

He found that discussions between the college and its legal advisers were increasingly about tactics against Mr Tregenna, rather than even-handed investigation. At a September 1993 meeting between the principal and the advisers their notes record: "..more positively, at the moment we have got Y (Mr Tregenna) in quite a corner with the confidentiality restriction and I want to keep him there".

At the disciplinary hearing stage the principal reportedly "emphasised his own belief in X's position, challenged unnecessarily evidence presented by Mrs Tregenna and introduced opinions designed to influence the decisions. These opinions were based on expert advice that the panel could not corroborate."

Mr Hill was wrong to undertake the role of prosecutor, having personally conducted the investigation, says the report. The confidentiality agreement should have been renegotiated.

"It is my view that Mr Tregenna's defence was, as a result, prejudiced. I also conclude by this stage that the approach of the principal had become increasingly partisan... What had begun as a well-meaning attempt to protect the personal integrity of X had descended into a determination to secure a guilty verdict against Mr Tregenna. Thus was the college embarked on a course of action which was to have far-reaching consequences," the report concludes.

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