Jessemy v Rowstock Ltd: post-termination victimisation and the limits of judicial reasoning by Harini Iyengar
How did the Court of Appeal in Jessemy v Rowstock Ltd  EWCA Civ 185 conclude that victimisation of former employees remains unlawful even though “on any natural reading of the relevant provisions of the [Equality Act 2010], taken on their own and without reference to any contextual material, post-termination victimisation is not proscribed”.
The Court of Appeal (“CA”) has held that post-termination victimisation is unlawful, by adopting an ingenious interpretation of section 108(7) of the Equality Act 2010. Whilst the outcome is clearly correct according to the coterie of right-minded employment lawyers (amongst whom I would aspire to class myself), the case provides an intriguing example of a court concluding that what the law says is in fact exactly what it does not say. Does the type of judicial reasoning which the CA has deployed in Jessemy v Rowstock Ltd give discrimination law a bad name?
The judgment of the CA was given by Underhill LJ, former President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (“EAT”), (with whom Ryder and Maurice Kay LJJ agreed) and upheld the judgment which his successor, Langstaff J, had given on the same issue in the EAT in Onu v Akwiwu, whilst overruling Mr Recorder Luba QC in Jessamy v Rowstock Ltd in the EAT.
As Underhill LJ stated, “the issue is one of pure law”, so, in regard to the facts, it is sufficient to relate simply that the claim of post-termination victimisation which the Employment Tribunal (“ET”) and then the EAT dismissed concerned a Claimant who was subjected to a detriment in the form of a poor reference from a former employer because he had brought proceedings for unfair dismissal and age discrimination.
The First-Generation Discrimination Statutes
The CA first considered the law on victimisation under the “first-generation” discrimination statutes (the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) which prohibited discrimination by an employer against a worker “employed by him” or “whom he employs”. In Post Office v Adekeye the CA held in 1997 that the natural meaning of these phrases confined the protection against discrimination to workers employed at the time of the act complained of, however, in Coote v Granada Hospitality Ltd in 1999 the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) held that since sex discrimination was proscribed under the Equal Treatment Directive, the “principle of effectiveness” meant that employees complaining of sex discrimination had to be protected against victimisation on that account, whether the victimisation occurred during employment or after termination. On remission, the EAT held in Coote that “employed by him” should be construed as including a former employee who had complained of sex discrimination, and that Adekeye should not be followed.
Then, in Rhys-Harper v Relaxion Group plc in 2003, the House of Lords authoritatively determined that in regard to all three first-generation discrimination statutes, “employed by him” and “whom he employs” (despite the use of the present tense) could and should be read as applying to former employees. According to Underhill LJ, “The essential point is that it was regarded as extremely unlikely that Parliament had intended to exclude all claims for post-employment discrimination.” The majority reached those conclusions by applying ordinary domestic principles of construction, rather than the ECJ decision in Coote.
The Second-Generation Discrimination Provisions
In 2003, in regard to sexual orientation and religion or belief, and in 2006 in regard to age, the second-generation discrimination rights were brought in through statutory instruments which expressly rendered unlawful any discrimination or harassment which arose out of and was closely connected to “relationships which have come to an end”. Equivalent provisions were inserted by regulation at the same time into the first-generation discrimination statutes.
This analysis brought Underhill LJ to the bedrock of his argument: “The upshot of all that is that at the time that the 2010 Act was drafted it was well-established that post-employment discrimination – which included victimisation – was unlawful.”
The Equality Act 2010
He went on to analyse the structure of the Equality Act 2010. Part 2 sets out key concepts on equality, Chapter 1 giving the protected characteristics and Chapter 2 explaining “Prohibited Conduct” in the form of direct and indirect discrimination, ancillary matters, and then “Other Prohibited Conduct” in sections 26 and 27 defining harassment and victimisation respectively. Unlike the first- and second-generation anti-discrimination rules, under the Equality Act 2010 rules, discrimination, harassment and victimisation are separated out as distinct forms of prohibited conduct.
It is only in Parts 5 and 8 that the relevant prohibited conduct is made unlawful. In Part 5, sub-sections 39(3) and (4) make it unlawful to victimise an employee by subjecting him or her to any other detriment (such as providing a bad reference). Section 83 contains the definition of “employee” as someone who is employed under a contract of employment, a contract of apprenticeship or a contract personally to do work. Part 8 covers “Prohibited Conduct: Ancillary” and includes section 108:
(1) A person (A) must not discriminate against another (B) if –
(a) the discrimination arises out of and is closely connected to a relationship which used to exist between them, and
(b) conduct of a description constituting the discrimination would, if it occurred during the relationship, contravene this Act.
(2) A person (A) must not harass another (B) if –
(a) the harassment arises out of and is closely connected to a relationship which used to exist between them, and
(b) conduct of a description constituting the harassment would, if it occurred during the relationship, contravene this Act.
(3) It does not matter whether the relationship ends before or after the commencement of this Act.
(6) For the purposes of Part 9 (enforcement), a contravention of this section relates to the Part of this Act that would have been contravened if the relationship had not ended.
(7) But conduct is not a contravention of this section in so far as it also amounts to victimisation of B by A.
The CA plainly identified “the problem” about section 108 as being that it explicitly proscribes post-termination discrimination and harassment, but contains no equivalent provisions as to victimisation. Underhill LJ politely said of section 108(7) that its “intended effect is far from clear”.
The New Generation Directives
Underhill LJ next moved on to European Union (“EU”) law, in the form of the Race Directive of 2000, the Framework Directive of 2000 on religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation, and the Recast Directive on sex discrimination of 2006, which he categorised as the new generation directives, structured differently from the Equal Treatment Directive which was in force at the time of the claims in Coote and Rhys-Harper. The new generation directives all contain a prohibition on victimisation which is worded in a broadly similar way, requiring Member States to introduce into their national legal systems such measures as are necessary to protect employees against dismissal or other adverse treatment by the employer as a reaction to a complaint within the undertaking or to any legal proceedings aimed at enforcing compliance with the principle of equal treatment.
Reaching the same conclusion in regard to EU law as he had in regard to domestic law, he said, “It is clear from the decision of the ECJ in Coote that that provision must apply equally to acts done after as well as during the currency of the employment relationship.”
The Straightforward Reasoning of the ET and the Luba EAT in Jessamy
The CA described the reasoning of the ET and the EAT in Jessamy as “straightforward”. Mr Recorder Luba QC’s EAT regarded it as “highly unlikely” that Parliament had intended with the Equality Act 2010 to legislate away any redress for post-employment victimisation, given both the domestic law in Rhys-Harper and the UK’s obligations under EU law. The EAT fully acknowledged the “flexible interpretative approach” required by EU law, and cited Attridge LLP v Coleman and Ghaidan v Godin-Mendoza, but concluded that to read section 108(7) as prohibiting post-termination victimisation would “fly directly in the face of what Parliament has actually enacted.”
The Wholly Domestic Interpretation of the Langstaff EAT in Onu
In contrast, Langstaff J’s EAT in Onu took an approach based on interpretative principles of domestic law, as in Rhys-Harper, to conclude that the reference to “an employee of A’s” in section 39(4), could be stretched to include former employees.
The Reasoning of the Court of Appeal
Underhill LJ considered that it was “clear that on a natural reading of the relevant provisions of the 2010 Act, taken on their own and without reference to any contextual material, post-termination victimisation is not proscribed”. How then did he manage to reach the opposite conclusion through deft judicial reasoning?
To start with, he acknowledged the shortcomings in Langstaff J’s approach in the EAT. Although, in isolation, “an employee of A’s” can be read as referring to a former employee, that is not consistent with the scheme of the Equality Act 2010, in which prohibited conduct arising out of a past relationship will be proscribed, if at all, by the ancillary provisions in Part 8, and in particular by section 108. There, discrimination and harassment post-termination are prohibited but not victimisation.
He then stated that when the contextual materials were considered, it was clear that the provision in the statute was “not the result which the draftsman intended”, pointing out that Langstaff J, Mr Recorder Luba QC, and the barristers in the case all shared that view.
The contextual materials on which Underhill LJ relied were (i) Rhys-Harper and the second-generation discrimination provisions which expressly made post-termination victimisation unlawful; (ii) the absence of any indication from the Government that the Equality Act 2010 was intended to change the law by removing protection against post-termination victimisation; (iii) the Explanatory Notes on section 108 which referred to claims being “dealt with under the victimisation provisions and not under this section”; (iv) the fact that if post-termination victimisation were not proscribed then the UK would be in breach of its obligations under EU law; and (v) the absence of any rational basis for treating post-termination victimisation differently from post-termination discrimination and harassment.
Taken together, these five matters led him to conclude, “It follows that the apparent failure of the statute to proscribe post-termination victimisation is a drafting error. … In the end, it is unnecessary to be able to show how the error arose as long as it is clear that it was indeed an error.”
The key issue for Underhill LJ was therefore, “… how far is it right to go to correct what is an undoubted drafting error: would that, as the EAT put it, involve crossing the Rubicon?” Underhill LJ reasoned that since the Equality Act 2010 gives effect to the UK’s equality obligations in EU law, the Court must adopt “the Ghaidan approach” which empowered it more widely to “depart from the natural reading of the language of the statute, including by the implication of words which alter its effect as drafted” than would be possible on a conventional domestic approach to statutory construction. He considered that the “flexible interpretative” Ghaidan approach “unquestionably” applied here. After a detailed analysis, he concluded that “the only question is whether it is “possible” … to imply words into the 2010 Act which achieve that result” of proscribing post-termination victimisation, that it plainly was possible, and that the implication of such words “in fact represents what the draftsman intended.” According to Underhill LJ, the Luba EAT erred in failing to appreciate just how flexible the Ghaidan approach was. Yet, while making this criticism, he acknowledged that “the effect of section 108(7) is decidedly opaque”. After bravely attempting to find meaning in the sub-section, Underhill LJ concluded that the first possible meaning (that post-termination was not intended to be proscribed and therefore was also not proscribed where it happened also to constitute post-termination discrimination) was one which would have “no rational reason … for having that effect, and it would have perverse results”, and the second possible meaning (that post-termination victimisation was proscribed elsewhere in the statute but for some reason cases of overlapping post-termination victimisation and discrimination claims should only be complained of under those other provisions) was “unconvincing” because cases of overlapping claims are common and do not in practice give rise to double recovery. Ultimately, Underhill LJ did accept that “it is indeed impossible to see the point of sub-section (7)”. He considered that “the draftsman may rather have lost his way in his treatment of section 108”, noting that in Schedule 28 “discrimination” was said to be defined in, amongst others, section 108, whereas in fact that section proscribed it.
From this position, that the draftsman must have lost his way, made an error, and drafted a meaningless sub-section, Underhill LJ reached the view that the section 108(7) contained “no clear indication of an intention that post-termination victimisation should be lawful”. Therefore, he reasoned, there was “no obstacle” to implying that section 108 gave effect to the EU obligation to proscribe post-employment victimisation. Perhaps intending to guide the lost draftsman, the Court of Appeal suggested either an amendment to section 108(1) to add:
In this sub-section discrimination includes victimisation,
or a new sub-section 2A to add:
A person (A) must not victimise another (B) if –
(a) the victimisation arises out of and is closely connected to a relationship which used to exist between them, and
(b) conduct of a description constituting the harassment would, if it occurred during the relationship, contravene this Act.
Having determined that it was meaningless, Underhill LJ was “not sure that anything needs to be done about sub-section (7)”. He was, however, careful to state that the meaningless sub-section “can have no meaning which is inconsistent with post-termination victimisation being unlawful.”
Then, at the request of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was concerned about discrimination in the provision of goods and services, not all of which is proscribed by EU law, Underhill LJ also considered whether the domestic approach to statutory construction would lead to a different result. He accepted a “more straightforward domestic route to the same result, by way of a “rectifying construction” of the kind adopted by the House of Lords in Inco,” involving a “plain case of drafting error”. For Underhill LJ, where there is a drafting error through omission, there is “no real difference” between the Ghaidan and the Inco approaches.
In Inco the court concluded that “the draftsman slipped up” and “the court must be able to correct obvious drafting errors”: the court held that the words “from any decision of the High Court under that Part” were to be read as meaning “from any decision of the High Court under a section in that Part which provides for an appeal from such decision.” According to Lord Nicholls in Inco, a court could adopt such a course only if “abundantly sure of three matters: (1) the intended purpose of the statute or provision in question; (2) that by inadvertence the draftsman and Parliament failed to give effect to that purpose in the provision in question; and (3) the substance of the provision Parliament would have made, although not necessarily the precise words Parliament would have used, had the error in the Bill been noticed.” Lord Nicholls went on to say, however, that the third condition was of crucial importance, because otherwise the court would be crossing the boundary between construction and legislation.
No doubt recognising the dramatic nature of his interpretation, Underhill LJ said, “It would be different in a case where no such intention is established and the argument is simply that the implication sought is necessary in order to comply with EU law or the requirements of the Convention.”
Through sophisticated reasoning, the CA has achieved a result which is fair in the minds of the coterie of employment lawyers, and which will be of practical service to many litigants (be they workers, employers, or those giving or receiving goods and services) by ending legal uncertainty. Is it right, however, for a court to respond to a statutory provision which has no satisfactory meaning by implying into the statute words which make conduct unlawful? The CA did not hold that sub-section 108(7) must be deleted as meaningless, but left it to “some other court” to “cudgel its brains about what real effect, if any, it has”. In spite of its hesitation to delete the sub-section, the CA felt confident in asserting that, whatever it might mean, the sub-section was definitely inconsistent with post-termination victimisation being permitted.
It seems to me that the CA has turned a statutory provision, which is, at best, meaningless, and is, at worst, ambiguous and inconsistent with the UK’s equality obligations under EU law, into a provision which renders conduct unlawful. Can the position really be said to be analogous to Inco? The Equality Act 2010 separated out harassment and victimisation into different claims, after decades of being aspects of discrimination. In my view, the difficulty is that, whilst the draftsman clearly drafted poorly, exactly what he was up to in terms of tinkering with the law on discrimination, harassment and victimisation and how they should interrelate, remains very unclear, yet, I feel sure that he was up to something.
Our clever judges know how to achieve the result which right-minded employment lawyers desire, through the deployment of deft judicial reasoning, but is it right to develop principles of judicial interpretation which permit a statutory provision to mean that conduct which is stated to be lawful is held to be unlawful?
Access to justice in general is a matter of acute concern to barristers right now. Within the field of employment law, the introduction of ET fees is having a profound effect on discrimination litigation, a part of the legal system which is intended to protect the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups of workers. Is it idealistic and unrealistic for me to long for judicial reasoning which makes sense to those outside the inner circle of employment lawyers, in regard to what the major discrimination statute means? Does the type of judicial reasoning which the CA has deployed in Jessemy v Rowstock Ltd give discrimination law a bad name?
An excellent and thoughtful post.
I’m torn. I’m not sure if I think this type of judicial reasoning gives discrimination law a bad name, or whether it’s just that the abominable drafting that led to this case gives the notion of parliamentary supremacy a bad name. Surely a saving grace of any justice system worthy of the name is that we acknowledge that parliament – even a parliament that is constitutionally viewed as “supreme” – is not immune to making mistakes, and that when it makes a mistake that is (a) obvious and (b) would lead to injustice, it ought to be the role of the judiciary not merely to point it out but to correct it. This is especially so where the particular injustice in question is proscribed by EU law and was – until recently – explicitly proscribed by UK law as well. One can hardly argue that this development has taken employers by surprise.