Legal woes torment GTC even in its death throes

25th November 2011 at 00:00
Judicial block throws its final months of work into disarray

As if things weren't tough enough for the General Teaching Council for England (GTC).

As the organisation prepares to wind itself up next spring - a victim of the Government's "bonfire of the quangos" - it is facing a major judicial block on what remains of its work.

TES has learnt that the disciplinary system for teachers accused of serious misdemeanours in England and Wales has been thrown into disarray because of legal worries that it was not truly impartial.

All incompetence or misconduct hearings have been postponed or adjourned following a recent Court of Appeal judgment. GTC bosses now have to make major changes to the way the disciplinary body is run.

The problem centres on a court ruling against a professional body that operates in a similar way to the GTC and the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW), the Institute of Legal Executives.

Judges found that the presence of senior members of the organisation on its disciplinary panels "gave rise to a possibility of apparent - or a perception of - bias", because it meant the organisation appeared to be both administering and judging the case. There was no suggestion of actual bias. In the case of the GTC and the GTCW, council members, who also govern the bodies, have until now sat on disciplinary panels.

As a result of the way the case, known as the Kaur judgment, reflects on their systems, GTC bosses in England and Wales stopped hearings two weeks ago.

Unsurprisingly, the situation has led to major frustration among those expecting to attend hearings. Lee Dumpleton, from Luton, was due to have his case heard by the GTC earlier this month, but it has been postponed.

"It feels as if the GTC has no empathy for the fact I can't get another job - I need to be able to clear my name. I had prepared for my hearing and it didn't happen," he said. "I want it to take place. I've been waiting for three years."

So far, some 30 cases have been postponed or adjourned in England. While GTC bosses hope to get the caseload restarted next week, chief executive Alan Meyrick has told union leaders the judgment will "represent the law for some time to come".

In a letter to them, he said the GTC executive committee had concluded "there is at the very least a substantial risk that a court would find that professional conduct committees or professional competence committees with council members sitting on it was not truly independent or impartial".

He said the committee thought there was a "very substantial possibility" that judges would rule that the way the GTC operated "offended the rule against bias" and could even decide the hearings were incompatible with fair trial rights protected by the European Convention.

"The executive committee have taken this decision only after the most careful of consideration. I want to emphasise that there is, of course, no suggestion of any actual bias," Mr Meyrick said.

The GTC's reforms have been approved by ministers. In future, current and former GTC council members will no longer sit on professional conduct committees, professional competence committees or suitability assessment panels.

Instead, only those who play no part in running the GTC, who serve only as hearing committee members, will sit on the panels.

GTC registrar Paul Heathcote said that the changes - which will result in fewer people available to sit on disciplinary panels - meant there would be a reduction in cases the body was able to hear.

"We are in the process of reviewing the capacity of additional committee members to hear cases to ensure we use their time as effectively as possible. We will also be drawing on principles of good regulation to assess cases to ensure that we prioritise consistently and appropriately in the public interest," he said.

The GTC will be axed next spring and will be replaced by the Teaching Agency. The Government is recruiting 30 people who will only be responsible for sitting on its disciplinary hearing panels.

But this is no cause for celebration from those who closely follow its workings. Indeed John Rimmer, president of teaching union the NASUWT and a union representative on the GTC's council, said the suspension of cases was "problematic".

"When the GTC ends, how many of theses cases will be heard by anyone if they are still outstanding?" he said.


GTC disciplinary hearings

200910 - 162

201011 - 217

The total number of hearings, including appeals against failed inductions, rose from 171 to 225, by far the highest number in a single year to date.

233 disciplinary hearings (excluding induction hearings) were concluded between April and October this year, which indicates that

2012 will see the highest number of hearings in a 12-month period to date.

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