Questions raised over teachers’ hearings in public

Legislation ‘contemplates but does not necessarily require’ hearing held in public

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn told the council last month of how even the family law courts had opened up to media coverage with a view to informing the wider community. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn told the council last month of how even the family law courts had opened up to media coverage with a view to informing the wider community. Photograph: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

 

Teachers facing disciplinary action will be able to stop “fitness-to-teach” hearings from being held in public unless there is a change in legislation, the Teaching Council has been told.

The regulatory body for the profession has received legal advice casting doubt over its authority to hold fitness-to- practise hearings in public, similar to those in the medical and legal profession and in the teaching profession overseas.

In an analysis of the Teaching Council Act 2001, Seamus Woulfe SC informed the council that the legislation “contemplates but does not necessarily require” that planned oral hearings before the disciplinary committee panel be held in private. He notes there is the scope for the panel having “a residual discretion to conduct an oral hearing in public” but this would only apply “if all parties were agreed and if the panel thought it was the proper thing to do”.

Pre-condition
Mr Woulfe adds: “However, it is a fundamental precondition to the exercise of this jurisdiction that all parties to the inquiry must agree that the hearing should be held in public, and if the teacher does not agree then the discretion cannot be exercised in favour of a public hearing and inquiry must be held in private.”

The council, whose members received the advice yesterday, is to meet again next month when it will decide whether or not to ask the Minister to amend the Act to allow public hearings become the “default” practice.

Some council members say failure to establish transparent hearings in line with other professions will undermine its credibility. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn told the council last month of how even the family law courts had opened up to media coverage with a view to informing the wider community.

However, two-thirds of the 37 members of the Teaching Council are teachers and many are strongly pushing for private hearings to be the “default” position.

Along with the legal advice, the council’s investigating and disciplinary committees considered a discussion document yesterday setting out arguments in favour of and against public hearings.

Arguments
Among the arguments in favour was that it “recognises the need for transparency and accountability to the public and to the profession”. Among the arguments against was that “Ireland is a small place and the fact that a teacher is up before a panel will be widely known with the potential for an impact on their reputation even if no finding is made against them”. The council sets out three options:

n Public hearings by default: this would include elements of private hearing where “minors/vulnerable adults give evidence” or sensitive medical evidence was given;

n Panel discretion: this would allow the disciplinary panel to decide on a case-by- case basis;

n Hearings in private: this would be the “default” position based on legal advice, the council says.

In its briefing document to members, the council points out that its counterpart bodies in both Scotland and Wales hold public hearings by default unless a select panel found it was contrary to public interest or there were particular confidentially concerns.

Similarly, the Medical Council of Ireland holds disciplinary meetings in public unless special circumstances apply.

The document points out that a change in the Act would also be required to allow a panel discretion over the format for fitness-to-teach hearings. There is a doubt over how often discretion would favour public hearings in practice because, as currently composed, there would be a majority of teachers on all disciplinary panels.