Probation officer accused of ‘aggressively abusive’ relationship with offender wins £60,000 for unfair dismissal

Investigation into claims against case manager was insufficient, court rules

A probation officer accused of developing an abusive and controlling relationship with a former offender has been awarded £60,000 for unfair and wrongful dismissal.

Julia Hyland, a probation officer at Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company, was dismissed after a service user alleged she developed an “aggressively abusive, unstable sexually abusive, controlling, narcissistic, jealous, manipulative and needy” relationship with him. 

However, a Manchester employment tribunal ruled Hyland was unfairly dismissed because the investigation into the “complex” and “highly unusual” case was insufficient considering the claimant was facing potentially career-ending allegations.

Employment Judge Sherratt added there was a failure to adequately seek evidence in her defence.

Hyland had worked as a probation officer for the Greater Manchester Probation Service since 1998 and had a spotless record prior to the allegations which led to the termination of her employment in August 2017. 

In July 2014, Hyland was transferred to the Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company in Salford when the service was privatised, where she worked with perpetrators of domestic violence aged 25 and under. It was here that she became the senior case manager for an individual referred to only as the service user (SU) who made the allegations against her.

SU was the subject of an 18-month community order requiring 90 hours of unpaid community service following an incident of domestic assault involving his then partner. 

On 4 August SU, who at the time was living in a hostel, informed his housing support officer Wendy Kinder that he had been experiencing issues with his probation officer. 

Kinder’s report of the conversation said SU alleged Hyland had allowed him to live at her house, that she had loaned him £300 which he needed to repay, and that she had been sending him text and WhatsApp messages and photographs of herself and other family members, often late at night, which he showed Kinder.

SU told Kinder that he had been living at the probation officer’s home since 11 March, but that when he began seeing a woman, the officer’s behaviour changed and she started to insult him. 

He added he had attended a family wedding with Hyland and that she grew cannabis in her house which they smoked together. 

SU also claimed that on one occasion, when the pair had been up late, Hyland got into bed with him. He said he went to the toilet to get out of the situation, and did not return to bed until she had fallen asleep. 

He concluded he found Hyland’s behaviour “aggressively abusive,” adding he had gone backwards in his rehabilitation and had become homeless, suffering from depression and anxiety.

SU also claimed he was harassed by two of Hyland’s nephews following his complaint and believed his life was in danger.

On Tuesday 9 August 2016, Hyland was invited to a meeting and informed that she would be suspended. She denied the allegations as “unbelievable” and “utter nonsense”, but was escorted from the office. Her suspension was confirmed in a letter dated 9 August.

On 16 August 2016, Vicky Travis, an interchange manager with the respondent company, was appointed investigating officer.

Among the evidence reviewed by the investigating officer, SU submitted as proof of his residency with Hyland several pictures and videos of the inside of her home, as well as knowledge of its floor plan.

However, Hyland claimed these images were obtained while she was away and her mother was house sitting. The tribunal heard that in July 2016, Hyland’s mother allegedly noticed a man peering through the window. The man, who fitted SU’s description, then came into the house where he said he was a friend of Hyland and had been given permission to enter while she was away.

A signed statement from a neighbour said that she had noticed a man hanging round her house suspiciously on a number of occasions.

Hyland denied that SU had ever stayed overnight at her address and said she had never smoked marijuana. A police search of her home found no traces of the substance. 

She said she had “absolutely not entered into a personal, emotional or sexual relationship with him [SU]” and suggested CCTV be checked at restaurants and supermarkets where SU claimed to have met her. The investigating officer did not follow through with this suggestion.

With regard to the wedding, Hyland said she had never attended a wedding with SU and that he had taken photos off her Facebook page.

The veracity of text and WhatsApp messages was also thrown into question when it emerged they could be faked, and the result of expert analysis of the messages was inconclusive.

On 7 November 2016, Hyland and her representative met with Travis and her HR business partner and all the evidence was reviewed. Travis concluded there was sufficient evidence to support the view that there was substance to the allegations and that the case should proceed to a disciplinary hearing

In her view, a further fact-finding meeting was not necessary as there had been no evidence provided to her within the six-month period of the investigation to refute the allegations against Hyland.

Hyland was dismissed on 3 August for having “failed to uphold the professional standards and breached boundaries expected of an offender manager.” The decision was appealed unsuccessfully.  

Throughout the process, investigating officers acknowledged how difficult the decision was, due to its complex nature and the high stakes involved. One said it was the hardest decision he had ever been faced with. 

However, Manchester Employment Tribunal concluded that while there was convincing and compelling evidence on both sides, the investigation had ultimately been insufficient. 

Judge Sherratt said Travis had not investigated whether there was a possibility of SU having faked the messages, and said Travis had accepted at face value that they were genuine without asking for SU’s phone records.

He said Hyland’s livelihood was on the line, and as such a thorough assessment should have been undertaken to verify the information provided. “There seems to have been a blanket acceptance that anything said by SU was accurate,” he said.

“In our judgment, the respondent has not satisfied us of any facts from which we could find it more likely than not that the claimant failed to uphold the professional standards and breached the boundaries expected of an offender manager.”

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said the case highlighted the high standard applied by tribunals when examining ‘reasonable investigations’ in cases where the disciplinary issue could end a professional employee’s career.

He said: “The role of the investigator is to be an impartial person that is actively looking for evidence in support of the allegation and the complaint, as well as any available evidence that supports the employee’s denial of the allegations. “ 

Holcorft added it also showed how a failure in the disciplinary investigation could occur if an employee was only given vague information about the allegations against them or was not questioned properly.

Following the tribunal, Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company was ordered to make a basic award of £12,225, a compensatory award of £39,927 and compensation for wrongful dismissal in the sum of £5,335.

A spokesperson for Cheshire & Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company said: “We respect the outcome of the tribunal. The court found that there were no grounds for disability discrimination, but upheld claims regarding unfair and wrongful dismissal.

“We have learned lessons from this complex case and as a result will implement disciplinary processes in such a way that ensures a similar situation cannot reoccur in the future.”

Julia Hyland could not be reached for comment.