The manner in which professional bodies and associations deal with their members could now be subject to change thanks to a landmark legal judgment in the High Court.
Judgment was handed down on 25 January 2019 in the case of Dymoke v Association for Dance Movement Therapy UK Limited (ADMP). The case concerned Catherine Dymoke, a Dance Movement Psychotherapist whose membership of the ADMP, a limited company, was terminated following alleged conflict of interests.
Having been stripped of her membership, the ADMP’s termination letter did not identify the reasons justifying Ms Dymoke’s termination and did not refer to or address the criteria for termination of membership identified in the ADMP’s complaints procedure. Despite numerous requests for details of the allegations against her, and the opportunity for Ms Dymoke to respond to the allegations during the ADMP’s investigation, her requests went unanswered. Ms Dymoke’s subsequent appeal to the ADMP against this decision was also not allowed, but no substantive response outlining the reasons for this decision on sanction was provided.
Acting on behalf of Ms Dymoke, the national law firm, Stephensons was instructed to issue proceedings in the High Court of Justice (Queens Bench Division) against the ADMP for breach of contract, citing the ADMP’s failure to follow its own internal rules and procedures, as well as its commission of multiple breaches of the rules of natural justice.
The ADMP denied that the rules of natural justice applied to it as a private limited company, by reference to a contractual implied term and denied that there had been any failure to comply with its procedural codes. The ADMP further argued that the outcome of the investigation would have been the same in any event and that reinstatement of Ms Dymoke’s membership was not an appropriate remedy.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Popplewell concluded that there were express terms in the contract between the parties that, in the event of any complaint made against her, Ms Dymoke would be informed of it and invited to respond; be kept appropriately informed; and any decision to impose a sanction or uphold the termination of her membership would take into account the recommended criteria set out in the ADMP’s complaints procedure. It was also determined that it was an implied term in the contract that Ms Dymoke would be treated fairly in relation to her termination, with sufficient detail of the complaints relayed to her and a reasonable opportunity to respond provided.
In his summary, Mr Justice Popplewell said: “…generally an implied term must not be inconsistent with any express term. The duty to act fairly in relation to decisions to terminate membership of a company must be consistent with the articles of association and the fiduciary duties of the directors.”
Commenting on the judgment, Counsel for Ms Dymoke, Nicholas Leviseur of 3 Paper Buildings added:
“This case is fundamentally about fairness and how the courts strive to ensure that members who face allegations which are serious and reputational can expect to know what the case against them is about.
“It sets standards to ensure that those affected are given a chance to respond at all stages of a disciplinary process whether at investigation, sanction or appeal. It ensures that the rules of natural justice are applied even in the absence of specific fairness provisions. It brings together strands of company and contract law and judicial review to prevent companies sheltering behind outdated defences. This is an important decision that changes the way membership organisations must deal with their members."
Laura Hannah, Senior Associate Solicitor, instructed on behalf of Ms Dymoke said:
“This is an important decision, not only for Ms Dymoke, but for other members of professional bodies, who are not given the opportunity to positively engage in the investigatory, decision making and appeal stages of a disciplinary process. It makes clear that members should be treated fairly and the rules of natural justice will be upheld wherever a membership organisation fails to do so.”