`I've lost everything but I would blow the whistle again'

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Know your rights, says teacher awarded pound;1.5m for victimisation

A teacher who endured 11 years of "complete hell" while taking legal action against her former employers wants other school whistleblowers to learn lessons from her case and understand their rights.

Karen Hall, pictured below, a former teacher at West Cornforth Primary School in County Durham, was awarded a pound;1.5 million settlement - which has just been made public - after a prolonged battle with Durham County Council and her senior leadership team over accusations of bullying.

Now she wants other teachers to view her ordeal as a cautionary tale and to be aware of their rights if they decide to speak out against mistreatment.

A decade of `complete hell'

"It has been 11 years of complete hell, where you are living it every minute of every day," Ms Hall said. "So I want what has happened to me to show to governors and other employers that they need to take whistleblowing seriously."

In 2004, Ms Hall accused her headteacher of assaulting her during a disagreement about netball practice.

"She called me into her office, sat me down and then stood behind me and aggressively asked me to tell her about netball organisation," Ms Hall recalls. "That's all she said: `netball organisation'. Nothing else; she just kept repeating `netball organisation', standing behind me.

"It was awful, just the tone, the manner, being shouted at - it was awful. I went away to be sick in the toilets, came back and said I needed to go home. At that point, she wrenched my arm and tried to push me back into her office."

Ms Hall said she complained to her local authority but was given no support.

She took the local council to an employment tribunal, leading to a protracted legal battle. The tribunal eventually found that Ms Hall had been subjected to 18 "separate acts of victimisation", including an incident where a tennis ball was thrown at her in front of her class.

Whistleblower protection

The tribunal judgment said the council should have known of its obligations to "protect whistleblowers" from victimisation.

Ms Hall said she was unaware of what she was entitled to, and that this was a lesson for her fellow educators to heed. "Other teachers should be aware of the protection there should be in school," she said. "There should be a designated whistleblower officer in the school, and in the council, that you can report to."

Because of the actions of her employers, a tribunal hearing earlier this year revised the initial compensation award of pound;59,321 to more than pound;1.5 million - a sum Ms Hall said she would swap "in a heartbeat" for the years she had lost.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Langstaff, president of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, described Ms Hall's ordeal as "an astonishing tale" which involved "the career of a promising, able and keen teacher effectively being destroyed by what had happened to her".

Ms Hall said she had been left crushed by the experience, but despite the heavy cost she would speak out again if she had to.

"I've lost my job. I've lost my career. My health has seriously suffered - I'm still suffering from depression. This will stay with me for the rest of my life," she said. "It has financially crippled us, it has emotionally crippled us. And I still suffer from nightmares. But I would have to blow the whistle again, because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't."

The tribunal has agreed to allow Durham County Council to appeal against the latest award.

The authority declined to comment on specific aspects of the case. Head of education Caroline O'Neill said: "We have made attempts to resolve this matter outside the tribunal system.

"Unfortunately we have not been able to reach an agreement that would form the basis of a settlement. However, we remain open to further discussions."

Trial by tribunal

An employment tribunal found that Ms Hall had been subject to 18 separate acts of victimisation between March 2004 and August 2006.

In 2014, Ms Hall was awarded compensation of a little under pound;1.25 million. A separate hearing ruled this year that the figure should be "grossed up" to just over pound;1.5 million.

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