With industrial tribunals unable to award more than Pounds 11,300 to those who have been unfairly sacked, a successful claim for compensation can be a Pyrrhic victory.
That was what Jennifer Trevisan found when an industrial tribunal unanimously decided that she had been unfairly dismissed by the governors of New Hall, an independent girls' school run by a Roman Catholic religious order.
Mrs Trevisan received Pounds 10,500 compensation, though she estimates that by the time she agreed to this her lost earnings and legal expenses totalled Pounds 34,000. Worse still, did she did not get her job back and more than a year later is still living on state benefits.
Mrs Trevisan, a language specialist, had been teaching at New Hall for more than 20 years when she fell out with the then head, Sister Margaret Mary, over her timetable and other matters .
Pupil numbers had been falling in the early 1990s, and in 1994 governors decided that the school's language faculty was overstaffed. Although another language teacher had previously offered to take early retirement, Mrs Trevisan was selected for redundancy after a "provisional selection" process carried out with what the industrial tribunal chairman later described as "undue haste".
In his ruling, the chairman listed other procedural points that had given the tribunal cause for concern. These included evidence that Mrs Trevisan had been in the head's mind as a possible candidate for redundancy two months before the possibility of redundancies had been raised with the language faculty as a whole.
Taken together, these procedural matters convinced the tribunal "that the proper (redundancy) selection criteria which had been adopted were not objectively or fairly applied, and that their application must have been tainted by the unhappy differences which had arisen between the applicant and Sister Margaret Mary during 1994".
But because of the breakdown in relationships and the appointment of new staff to the language faculty after Mrs Trevisan had left, the tribunal did not order reinstatement. Instead, the chairman recommended an award of up to Pounds 11,000 but suggested that Mrs Trevisan should come to an out-of-court settlement. Had the tribunal itself made an award, she would have had to pay back all the benefits she had received since the date of her dismissal.
Early in 1997, Mrs Trevisan accepted the school's offer of a factual reference and Pounds 10,500 compensation. Pointing out that there is no upper limit on the amount of compensation industrial tribunals can award in racial or sexual discrimination cases, Mrs Trevisan's husband argues that the amounts awarded in other unfair dismissal cases are derisory. "Who is afraid nowadays of the industrial tribunals' wolf?" he asks. "Certainly not unscrupulous employers. "