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Internal Disciplinary Proceedings

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[Thanks to Laura Samuel of Berrymans Lace Mawer for preparing this case summary]

Do the judicial doctrines of res judicata and abuse of process apply to internal disciplinary proceedings?

No, says the Court of Appeal in Christou v London Borough of Haringey.

The facts related to the handling of the tragic Baby P case, in which a 17-month-old baby died as a result of abuse. The Claimants had been social workers responsible for Baby P and were employed by Haringey Council. Initially, the Claimants were disciplined under the Council's disciplinary procedure and given a written warning. Following extensive media coverage, a review of the case found the original disciplinary proceedings to have been "blatantly unsafe", and fresh disciplinary proceedings were instituted. As a result of these proceedings, both Claimants were dismissed.

The main argument relied on by the Claimants was that the doctrine of res judicata prevented the re-opening of a matter where a decision has already been pronounced by a judge or other tribunal with jurisdiction.  The Court of Appeal rejected that argument, saying "it is wrong to describe the exercise
of disciplinary power by the employer as a form of adjudication".

The Court of Appeal held that the purpose of disciplinary procedure is not "a determination of any issue which establishes the existence of a legal right", nor does it determine a dispute. The critical question was whether the procedures "operate independently of the parties such that it is appropriate to describe their function as an adjudication between the parties".