Union challenges cost of appeal for disgraced teachers

16th May 2014 at 01:00
Those found unfit for role need easier court option, says SSTA

Teachers who have been struck off the professional register should be given easier and cheaper access to justice by being able to appeal their cases in the Sheriff Court, a union has claimed.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) is calling on the government to change the current process, by which banned teachers can appeal only to the Court of Session - the country's supreme civil court. Delegates at the association's annual conference passed a motion calling for staff to have the right to appeal to the lower Sheriff Court, because the pound;20,000 cost of taking a case to the Court of Session was deterring members from initiating legal proceedings.

Since 1979, a total of 14 teachers appealed a decision by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) to the Court of Session and seven have won their cases, according to the council. The GTCS said it had successfully defended two cases, conceded one and four teachers withdrew their appeals.

Figures provided by the GTCS last year show that 97 teachers were removed from the register between 2005-06 and 2011-12.

Former SSTA president Margaret Smith, who spoke on the conference motion in Peebles last week, said that appeals to the Court of Session were "very expensive" but had been successful in the past.

SSTA acting general secretary Alan McKenzie said there had been times when members dealt with by a GTCS Fitness to Teach panel had felt they should have appealed but had been deterred by the cost and gravitas of going to the Court of Session.

Currently a GTCS investigating panel, made up of three council members, refers complaint cases to the Fitness to Teach panel, drawn from a pool of independent members. If a teacher is found to be unfit to teach, they have the option of taking an appeal to the Court of Session.

But Drew Morrice, assistant secretary for the EIS teaching union, said that opening the Sheriff Court to appeals might simply add another step in the process towards a final appeal at the higher court.

He also had concerns about due legal process being followed. "If you leave cost to one side, the Court of Session as the highest court in the land should ensure consistency of practice and I think I would have concerns with a Sheriff Court replacing the Court of Session purely on the basis of cost," he said.

"Costs must always be a concern, but.there is a risk here to use an intermediate legal step before the ultimate legal step."

Appeals do not just create costs for the teachers involved. In January, TESS reported that the GTCS case against Janet Garner, who was struck off for incompetence, had cost the council pound;174,000. She has since launched a second appeal, meaning that figure will rise still further.

A spokesman for the GTCS said: "We fully support the right of registrants to challenge our decision-making; this is central to our role as a fair and proportionate regulator."

He added that, in principle, the organisation would have "no objection" to an appeal route to the Sheriff Court. But he also said there were "benefits to the current arrangement" because it ensured that teachers had "access to an open and fair process".

A Scottish government spokesperson said: "We would be happy to consider the matter of which court should hear appeals against GTCS decisions in any future review."

But they added that the government would be "reluctant to initiate" a review of a single issue just two years after the GTCS was made independent.

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