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Queensland College of Teachers v JNI[2016] QCAT 182

Queensland College of Teachers v JNI[2016] QCAT 182

CITATION:

Queensland College of Teachers v JNI [2016] QCAT 182

PARTIES:

Queensland College of Teachers

v

JNI

APPLICATION NUMBER:

OCR165-15

MATTER TYPE:

Occupational regulation matters

HEARING DATE:

20 April 2016

HEARD AT:

Brisbane

DECISION OF:

Member Howard, Presiding Member

Member Kanowski

Member MacDonald

DELIVERED ON:

29 April 2016

DELIVERED AT:

Brisbane

ORDERS MADE:

  1. The disciplinary referral is dismissed.
  2. Other than to the parties to these proceedings, publication of any information which may identify the names of the teacher, her former partner and her children is prohibited.
  3. The reasons for decision may be published to the public only in de-identified format.

CATCHWORDS:

DISCIPLINARY REFERRAL – TEACHER – whether teacher suitable to teach – where 17 year history of domestic violence against teacher by her then partner- where teacher breached (mutual) domestic violence order in 2014 in months before separation from former partner – whether teacher is unsuitable to teach now

Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 (Qld) ss 3(1), 12(1)(b), 12(3)(a), 92(1)(h)

Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2009 (Qld) s 66

Queensland College of Teachers v GHI [2012] QCAT 182

Queensland College of Teachers v Teacher CAP [2011] QCAT 541

APPEARANCES and REPRESENTATION:

APPLICANT: Mr J Gormley, Principal Legal Officer, Queensland College of Teachers

RESPONDENT:  Ms R Drew, Solicitor, Tress Cox Lawyers

REASONS FOR DECISION

  1. [1]
    This case is about whether JNI, a teacher, should face a disciplinary sanction. JNI breached a domestic violence order on seven occasions in 2014. The Queensland College of Teachers (QCT) considers JNI is not suitable to teach[1] and so it referred the matter to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) for determination of whether a disciplinary ground is established.
  2. [2]
    JNI has been registered as a teacher since 1991. She is now 46 years of age. She has continued to work as a teacher since the incidents in 2014.

The disciplinary proceeding in QCAT

  1. [3]
    The proceeding was initially listed for hearing on the papers on 2 March 2016, after the parties provided a statement of agreed facts and other material. The documents record that the parties agreed that the disciplinary ground the teacher is not suitable to teach was established. The QCT submitted that a reprimand, as a formal censure, was appropriate. JNI’s lawyers did not suggest otherwise.
  2. [4]
    When we considered the matter on the papers, we decided that we needed further written submissions and an oral hearing. There were several reasons for this. The principal reason was that there appeared to be incongruity between the submission that JNI is not suitable to teach and the idea that she should be permitted to continue to teach with a reprimand as the only sanction.
  3. [5]
    The parties provided further written submissions and an oral hearing was then held on 20 April 2016. 

Background

  1. [6]
    The following matters of background are uncontroversial between the parties.
  2. [7]
    As at January 2014, JNI’s marriage had broken down. JNI and her husband remained living at the family home, though her ex-partner was sleeping in a shed on the property. Their children – a son then aged 16 and a daughter then aged 15 – were also living at home. In January 2014, mutual domestic violence protection orders were made in the Magistrates Court. These orders required JNI and her ex-partner to be of good behaviour towards each other, and to refrain from committing acts of domestic violence.
  3. [8]
    JNI failed to comply with the order issued against her. The police were called to disturbances at the home on several occasions until JNI moved out in July 2014, when ordered by the Magistrates Court to vacate the house. Meanwhile, between February and July 2014, JNI accumulated seven charges of contravening the domestic violence protection order.
  4. [9]
    The incidents leading to the charges arose from arguments between JNI and her ex-partner over food; her ex-partner’s use of furniture that JNI said was hers; and so on. Some of the incidents involved physical altercations between the couple. On most occasions, JNI yelled at her ex-partner. Several incidents included JNI punching or striking her ex-partner. On one occasion, JNI threw aluminium ladders against a wall while yelling at the police and her ex-partner. On most of these occasions, police observed that JNI was quite intoxicated by alcohol. The children witnessed the incidents and sometimes intervened to try to prevent escalation. On one occasion, this resulted in JNI trying to pull a chair out from underneath her son. One time, police heard JNI yelling at her daughter. Another time JNI admitted that she had lifted up a table causing the things on the table, including the meals of her ex-partner and their son, to fall to the floor. On one visit, police saw that many trophies in the daughter’s room had been broken as a result of her ex-partner pushing JNI.
  5. [10]
    Only JNI was charged in connection with the disturbances, police concluding that she was the aggressor.
  6. [11]
    The seven charges against JNI were dealt with together in the Magistrates Court in September 2014. JNI pleaded guilty. JNI’s lawyer handed up a report by a psychologist, Ms Celia Lane.  Ms Lane noted JNI’s report of enduring a long history of violence in the marriage, and diagnosed a major depressive episode and alcohol dependence. The Magistrate accepted that it had been ‘two-way domestic violence’ and that JNI had been ‘so despondent’ about her situation that she was ‘really at the bottom of the dark pit or the abyss’. The Magistrate commented that JNI’s depressed state seemed to have prompted her alcohol consumption. The Court placed JNI on probation for 15 months, and did not record convictions.
  7. [12]
    JNI completed her probation without incident. There is no suggestion of any further incidents between JNI and her ex-partner. JNI and her ex-partner remain separated on a permanent basis.
  8. [13]
    After the QCT commenced disciplinary action, JNI wrote a detailed submission to the QCT’s Professional Practice and Conduct Committee. She described a history of cruel physical violence and sustained emotional and financial abuse perpetrated against her by her husband over many years. She said she had been subjected to approximately 17 years of ‘calculated and systemic abuse’, and that she then committed the offences ‘during a time of extreme stress, insecurity and vulnerability’. She described consuming alcohol regularly from 2013 because she felt unable to withstand her ex-partner’s ‘tirades’ against her.

Discussion of the evidence

  1. [14]
    The scenario of a woman starting out as the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a controlling partner, and then finally snapping and retaliating, is a familiar one. JNI’s account to this effect is credible. We accept it.
  2. [15]
    In her submission, JNI also said that post-separation she has reduced her alcohol consumption to the level of ‘one or two glasses of low alcohol wine during the evening’. We accept this.
  3. [16]
    JNI has provided a favourable letter from the Principal at her school, commenting upon emotional improvements post-separation. She also provided a short letter from a general practitioner, Dr Elliott, written in December 2015 while JNI’s usual doctor was away. Dr Elliott explained that she has known JNI for a number of years both as a patient and in the community. Dr Elliott said that JNI had undergone mental health counselling and Dr Elliott considers her mentally fit for her job.
  4. [17]
    There is no allegation in the disciplinary referral that JNI’s conduct at school or her performance as a teacher are unsatisfactory.

Issues

  1. [18]
    The issues we must decide are:
    1. Is JNI not suitable to teach?
    2. If so, what disciplinary action should be taken?

Is JNI not suitable to teach?

  1. [19]
    A ground for disciplinary action will be established if it is shown that the teacher is not suitable to teach.[2] It is relevant to consider whether the person in question is suitable to work in a child-related field.[3] A person who behaves in a way that does not satisfy a standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher is not suitable to teach.[4] As a matter of statutory construction, the assessment about suitability to teach must be made at the time of the QCAT hearing.[5]
  2. [20]
    The following is a summary of the QCT’s submissions. The intensity, nature and duration of JNI’s offending show that she is not suitable to teach. The offending involved repeated physical violence and other unacceptable behaviour. JNI exposed her own children to violent conduct and she verbally abused them. They tried to intervene in the conflicts. The police questioned them about what had happened between the parents. These things were traumatic for the children. The fact that JNI engaged in domestic violence in the presence of children raises doubts about her self-control, which is a key attribute of a teacher. Her conduct reflects on her suitability to work in a child-related field. Her behaviour over a relatively prolonged period fell below the standards generally expected of a teacher. There is limited evidence about treatment undertaken for the depressive disorder. The evidence according to the QCT is not sufficient to demonstrate full rehabilitation.
  3. [21]
    We note that the question of JNI’s mental fitness for teaching is outside the scope of the disciplinary referral by the QCT. The referral alleges unsuitability to teach on the basis that JNI committed acts of violence, in the presence of her children, which breached a domestic violence order. A disciplinary proceeding is a very serious matter for the teacher involved. For reasons of fairness, the referral must be confined to the allegations made in it. The Tribunal is not entitled to extend its scope in the manner suggested by the QCT’s submissions. This is to ensure that the teacher is not taken by surprise by additional allegations not dealt with in the evidence responding to the referral. At hearing, this was properly conceded by the QCT’s representative. Accordingly, the Tribunal makes no finding about mental fitness or unfitness in JNI’s case.
  4. [22]
    On the other hand, an additional matter adverse to JNI is the fact that she repeatedly contravened a Court order and was disrespectful toward the police. This shows some disregard for the law and legal authorities.
  5. [23]
    It is relevant to note that the main objects of the Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 (Qld) (EQCT Act) include upholding the standards of the teaching profession and maintaining public confidence in the profession.[6] The QCT also draws attention to the values of responsibility, respect and care promoted in the Code of Ethics for Teachers in Queensland. As the QCT has observed, the perpetration of domestic violence in the presence of children – even children who are not students of the teacher – conflicts with the protective role expected of a teacher. Such conflict may undermine public confidence in the profession.
  6. [24]
    Ms Drew, for JNI, conceded in her oral submissions that JNI’s conduct in 2014 in breaching the domestic violence protection order fell below the standard generally expected of a teacher, and so JNI was then not suitable to teach. Ms Drew did not go so far as to concede that this remains the case.
  7. [25]
    The conduct of a person in their personal life may indicate unsuitability to teach. For example, it may point to an inability to recognise appropriate boundaries in interpersonal relationships in the case of inappropriate sexual conduct.[7] The QCT submits that it extends to the person being a poor role model for students, which it says JNI’s behaviour, in breaching the orders, demonstrates. We conclude that it is a matter of fact and degree having regard to the particular conduct of the teacher. Whereas inappropriate sexual conduct towards a child readily falls into this category, other conduct in a teacher’s personal life may or may not do so, depending upon the particular conduct.
  8. [26]
    We acknowledge the tragic circumstances in which JNI found herself in 2014. It is reasonable to infer from the evidence that, at that time, after many years of enduring domestic violence against her, she could take it no more. She relied on alcohol to self-medicate her (then undiagnosed) depression and she acted out, retaliating in kind to the aggression she had experienced. In doing so, she engaged in the conduct which is now the subject of the disciplinary referral.
  9. [27]
    We accept that her conduct in 2014 – her chaotic personal life, her exposure of her own children to trauma, her repeated breaking of the law, and so on – made her not suitable to teach at that time. Although there is no evidence to suggest that her students knew of the conduct, she was not behaving according to a standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher, and did not provide an appropriate role model for them. JNI’s conduct fell below the standards generally expected of a teacher.
  10. [28]
    The 2014 conduct occurred in a pressured and toxic home environment. JNI’s judgment was clouded by the long-term abuse she had suffered, compounded by depression and alcohol. There is no suggestion of any further similar behaviour since the physical separation of JNI and her ex-partner in 2014. JNI has made significant changes in her life since separation. She removed herself from that domestic setting. She no longer uses alcohol to excess. She recognised and admitted her wrongdoing by pleading guilty to the charges. She has completed her probation without issue. She has not re-offended. She has continued to teach. We are satisfied that it is reasonable to conclude that the risk of her re-offending is low.
  11. [29]
    JNI’s capacity to be an appropriate role model for children is less straightforward. She cannot erase the wrongdoing from her history. The events of 2014 detract to an extent from her suitability as a role model for students. It is reasonable to infer that students would, if they knew of the history, understand that the wrongdoing happened in response to, and within, a very particular context. Without for one moment excusing or condoning JNI’s previous poor behaviour, her experience is a powerful demonstration of leaving behind a violent relationship, and starting afresh. The way that JNI has overcome her traumatic past, learnt from her mistakes, and turned her life around is a positive story of resilience in the face of adversity. We do not accept that she is now an unsuitable role model for students.
  12. [30]
    Further, we are not satisfied that JNI’s behaviour now falls below a standard generally expected of a teacher or makes her unsuitable to work in a child-related field. We are not satisfied that she is not suitable to teach.
  13. [31]
    A ground for disciplinary action is therefore not established. The disciplinary referral must be dismissed.

Non-publication orders

  1. [32]
    QCAT can make an order prohibiting the publication of identifying information in certain circumstances, such as where publication would endanger the physical or mental health of a person or where there is some other reason for non-publication in the interests of justice.[8]
  2. [33]
    We are satisfied that it would not be in the interests of justice for JNI’s children to be identifiable to the public. Further, it is not in the interests of justice for the teacher’s name to be published where we have found that a disciplinary ground is not established. Publication would cause embarrassment for the teacher and her family members. While public denunciation of the teacher in a disciplinary context – in addition to the denunciation involved in the criminal process – might well be appropriate if a disciplinary ground were established, disclosure of the teacher’s identity would serve no purpose where a ground has not been established. Clearly, it is also desirable that the identity of family members caught up in the process not be disclosed.
  3. [34]
    It is therefore in the interests of justice to prohibit publication of the names of the teacher and her family members, and for publication of these reasons, other than to the parties, to occur in de-identified format.

Conclusion

  1. [35]
    Accordingly, we make orders dismissing the disciplinary referral, and making non-publication orders so that the identity of the teacher and her family members is not disclosed.

Footnotes

[1] Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 (Qld) (EQCT Act) s 92(1)(h).

[2] EQCT Act s 92(1)(h).

[3] Ibid s 12(1)(b).

[4] Ibid s 12(3)(a).

[5] Queensland College of Teachers v GHI [2012] QCAT 182 at [9].

[6] EQCT Act s 3(1).

[7] As discussed in Queensland College of Teachers v Teacher CAP [2011] QCAT 541 at [20].

[8] Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2009 (Qld) s 66.

Close

Editorial Notes

  • Published Case Name:

    Queensland College of Teachers v JNI

  • Shortened Case Name:

    Queensland College of Teachers v JNI

  • MNC:

    [2016] QCAT 182

  • Court:

    QCAT

  • Judge(s):

    Member Howard, Member Kanowski, Member MacDonald

  • Date:

    29 Apr 2016

Appeal Status

Please note, appeal data is presently unavailable for this judgment. This judgment may have been the subject of an appeal.

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