News Senior civil servant alleged to have leaked information wins employment claim

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A former senior civil servant who was alleged to have leaked information to the press has won a breach of contract claim against the Commonwealth Secretariat at a specially convened London employment tribunal.

In an interim judgment for Ram Venuprasad and The Commonwealth Secretariat, dated 9 April, the Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal found that Ram Venuprasad, who had 15 years’ service with the Commonwealth Secretariat, was wrongly “marked out” and subjected to “flawed” disciplinary action.

His departure followed press reports of extravagant spending by the new secretary-general. Venuprasad was blamed for the reports but he strongly denied having leaked any confidential information to the media.

Venuprasad was employed by the Commonwealth Secretariat from November 2001 to December 2016. His last post was deputy head of office in the secretary-general’s office, from November 2014 to December 2016, when his contract expired, ending his employment.

As a senior member of the Secretariat’s staff, he had “consistently” positive performance appraisals, endorsed by then secretary-general Mr Sharma.

Following the appointment of Baroness Patricia Scotland QC as secretary-general in 2016, however, his working relationship deteriorated after tensions arose, ending with a series of events leading to his tribunal claim.

Venuprasad was suspected within the Secretariat of being the source of a leak of confidential documents regarding the secretary-general to the Daily Mail in May 2016, and he was suspended from his post in June 2016.

Having begun disciplinary proceedings, on 31 October 2016 the Secretariat’s disciplinary board considered allegations that Venuprasad had breached the Secretariat’s confidentiality policy, namely its IT policy laid out in its staff handbook.

It was also alleged that he had “inappropriately handled confidential and highly sensitive information” to which he had access as deputy head of the office of the secretary-general, according to the tribunal.

The board, however, met in Venuprasad’s absence, after he took sick leave in July 2016 for a significant illness. Although it agreed to his previous request to reschedule a disciplinary hearing set for September because of his ill-health, it declined his request to adjourn a November hearing until he was well enough to attend, and brought forward the hearing to 31 October.

The board found that, although the two allegations were what it described as “substantiated”, there was no direct evidence that Venuprasad leaked the emails or information in them to a third party. It recommended issuing him with a final written warning.

He received a final written warning dated 2 December 2016, shortly before his employment was due to expire, but while he remained on sick leave. He did not return to work before his employment terminated.

Venuprasad internally appealed and the Secretariat considered and dismissed each point. He challenged the June 2016 decision to suspend him, the August 2016 decision to proceed with a disciplinary procedure, the board’s November 2016 decision to give him a final written warning and the Secretariat’s chief operating officer’s March 2017 decision to dismiss his appeal of the final written warning.

He claimed these violated duties owed to him, including that of trust and confidence, fair treatment, such as due process and a fair hearing, the right to view all information relevant to the disciplinary findings, and the duty to exercise disciplinary powers only for a proper purpose.

Following the hearing, the tribunal concluded that the disciplinary board’s decision was “flawed” in a number of “significant respects”, and set aside that decision, the internal appeal decision and the final written warning.

Moreover, the panel found the 22 June 2016 decision to suspend Venuprasad breached the Secretariat’s obligations under his employment contract, and it ordered a declaration of breach and a compensatory award. It declined to set aside his suspension, saying he already had other remedies.

It concluded that adverse statements about Venuprasad made to the media by the Secretariat further breached its duties to him, as they were “calculated to discredit him and harm his reputation”.

Under its ruling, loss caused by the breach of such obligations entitled Venuprasad to compensation. “His suspension, the issue of a final written warning and the attacks on Mr Venuprasad in the media are inherently likely to have damaged Mr Venuprasad’s reputation and prejudiced his search for new employment,” the judgment stated. “An award of compensation in respect of those losses is in principle appropriate.”

Costs are to be awarded at a future hearing.

In a press release issued through Leigh Day, his solicitors, Venuprasad said he “had little option but to seek legal counsel and representation and make an application to the tribunal concerning disciplinary and destructive personal accusations against me by the Commonwealth Secretariat as such – and individuals within it”.

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