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Colborn’s corner – Open justice?


Quentin ColbornA couple of weeks ago there were reports that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was considering opening up police disciplinary hearings to the public. Quentin looks at this topic from an HR perspective and wonders what would happen if more disciplinary hearings were held in the open.

I guess that the vast majority of readers of this column will have been involved in disciplinary hearings during their career – hopefully from an HR perspective rather than as a recipient! In my experience the vast majority of these hearings are conducted privately with due respect to the employee concerned – after all, until the hearing is completed, who knows if there is a case to answer or not?

So why are disciplinary hearings in most organisations held in private, while criminal offences are addressed in the public domain? Not that I’m suggesting that a case of lateness or absence should be equated with a criminal issue! I think that one of the issues has to be around the heading of ‘mud sticks’. Regardless of how much within a justice system we say that an ‘innocent’ verdict means just that, there is still the lingering perception of ‘But did he really do it’ when someone has been found not guilty.

This must apply as much to employment matters as within the criminal courts. Within this country we have a pretty clear view that justice needs to be seen to be done, hence there is normally a deep level of concern when certain criminal matters are dealt with in camera, but this normally only happens in areas of national security. There is one interesting exception to this where in rape cases the victim’s identity is protected, while within Employment Tribunals cases involving sexual conduct, parties’ names may be withheld and reporting restriction may be put in place.

I am firmly of the view that within an organisation the details of a disciplinary hearing should be kept confidential. That way witnesses are more likely to give full and frank evidence and both parties should emerge feely they have had a fair hearing. It should also be remembered that the right to be accompanied does provide a degree of external view of the hearing as an additional pointer towards impartiality.

Of course if matters go external to the organisation there is the potential for it to be placed before an Employment Tribunal where, in theory at least, the hearing is open to the public. As anyone who has attended a Tribunal will know, the reality is somewhat different in that there are rarely any attendees apart from those directly connected with the parties, unless it is a ‘juicy’ case where there is a significant amount of media attention.

In terms of public hearings into public employees such as, but not restricted to, the police the issue has to be one of balancing fairness to the individual within the public perception that justice has been done and is seen to be done. On one hand it seems unfair for a serving police officer to have a disciplinary hearing heal in public, while a civilian police employee may be governed by a very different approach in which hearings are held privately.

On the other hand the public need to feel that disciplinary issues involving bodies such as the police are so serious that there needs to be public scrutiny as to what goes on. If there is a lack of public confidence that private hearings would be conducted fairly that is a serious issue that perhaps needs to be addressed. However we need to remember that for all employees, whether public or private, the employment relationship is an important one where the confidence of both parties needs to be maintained. Anything that undermines that surely has to be a retrograde step.

Do you have involvement in HR within public bodies? How does the prospect of public hearings effect you? What difference, if any, would public hearings make on the work of you employer? Let’s have your views on this topic.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

One Response

  1. Public discipline hearings
    I agree absolutely with Mr Colborn, and would add that whoever it is in the UK Police that is contemplating this move should be dealt to with one of their own Tazer guns!!!!!! Employment is a unique environment, and regardless of the fact the Police are guardians of the public, they are first and foremost employees, and as such have a primary duty to their employer. Discipine issues within the Police relate to how they meet that primary duty, and as with any organisation where the public interest has to be acknowledged, outcomes of hearings will sometimes need to be reported.

    So for goodness sake keep such ‘hairbrained’ schemes under control over your side of the world, in case some likeminded person on our side managaes to get hold of it!!!

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