Hartlepool law lecturer launches legal action claiming she was ‘stitched up’ by college bosses

Carole Horseman on the lawn at Hartlepool Sixth Form College
Carole Horseman on the lawn at Hartlepool Sixth Form College

A senior law lecturer launched a legal bid for constructive dismissal against her former college employers.

Former head of the law department Sue Houchen resigned last year and is suing Hartlepool Sixth Form College, former acting principal Carole Horseman and head of faculty Maureen Bunter for constructive dismissal.

Head of faculty Maureen Bunter

Head of faculty Maureen Bunter

At a tribunal hearing into the claim a senior manager at the college has denied claims Mrs Houchen was ‘stitched up’ by the clerk to the governors.

The hearing comes after the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has published a report on standards and quality at Hartlepool Sixth Form College following a review in January, where 100 students are studying for a Foundation Degree in Law.

The inspectors judged academic standards, the quality of its student learning opportunities, and the information about its learning opportunities, do meet UK expectations, but the enhancement of its student learning opportunities required improvement to bring it up to the expected standard.

The college was also judged to be inadequate - the lowest rating - in November last year, although improvements have since been made.

An employment tribunal in Newcastle heard relations between Ms Houchen and staff had started to break down at the end of 2013.

Mrs Houchen was working from home on restricted hours as a result of stress in June, when the other employees were interviewed by Mrs Bunter.

She told the hearing she expected Mrs Houchen would be interviewed when she returned to work, but a letter signed by Mrs Bunter was sent to Mrs Houchen in October, outlining a recommendation to dismiss Mrs Houchen.

Questioned by Paul Hargreaves, for Mrs Houchen, Mrs Bunter told the hearing she had agreed to sign the letter on behalf of clerk to the governors David Stevenson - who had been acting as an HR consultant to the college - after being pressed by new principal Alex Fau-Goodwin.

Asked by Mr Hargreaves: “Are you saying the letter in October is nothing to do with you?”, she replied, “I am saying the recommendations in that letter are nothing to do with me.”

The letter referred to a recommendation to dismiss due to gross misconduct: “That is David Stevenson’s phrase?” asked Mr Hargreaves. “Yes,” she replied, “those are not my words.”

Mrs Bunter was challenged by tribunal judge John Hunter: “Who gave Mr Stevenson this carte blanche to make decisions on behalf of the college without consulting anyone?

“I can’t answer that,” she replied.

“I honestly believe Alex Fau-Goodwin was not involved because I went to him and he said ‘I can’t discuss it with you because if it does come to a disciplinary hearing, I will have to work on it.’

“What he said was ‘I feel really bad about asking you to put your name to a letter that David is going to ask you to.’”

“If I were you, I would be angry with Mr Stevenson,” said Mr Hargreaves, “because it looks like he has stitched the claimant up and he has put your name on the paper.”

“I don’t agree,” said Mrs Bunter.

Asked why there had been no welfare meeting, as required by the college’s own HR policy, Carole Horseman said it had been on the advice of David Stevenson.

“Normally, as per policy, Sue and I would have had a meeting to discuss how we would manage long-term sickness of an employee. In this instance, I was following advice from our HR consultant.

“The policy has not been followed. However, I was acting on advice and trying to be supportive.”

She denied there had been a policy to drive Mrs Houchen out: “There was no intention to force her out at all, but there was an intention to try to sort out a dysfunctional department.”

The tribunal panel reserved judgement until a later date.