Constructive Knowledge and Rubber Stamps

The court of appeal yesterday handed down judgment in Gallop v Newport City Council regarding the question of an employer’s constructive knowledge of disability. The Claimant was supported by the EHRC who were understandably pleased with the outcome. Credit should also go to the Bar Pro Bono Unit who supported in the EAT and in getting permission to appeal.

Mr Gallop was a technical officer  working for the local council. He had exhibited some signs of depression such as, stress, lack of sleep and appetite, tearfulness and difficulty in concentrating. Over the course of about 3 years, these symptoms continued and absences due to them occurred, he was referred to Occupational Health. The ET and EAT had decided that when the council’s occupational health providers had stated that Mr Gallop was not disabled in the course of three reports, the employer was entitled to rely on that to conclusively demonstrate that it did not have knowledge of the employee’s disability when it later turned out that he actually met the definition. The problem with the occupational health reports were that as they were described by Rimer LJ:

Their opinions amounted to no more than assertions of their view that the DDA did not apply to Mr Gallop, or that he was not ‘covered’ by it or words to that effect. No supporting reasoning was provided. As the opinions were those of doctors, not lawyers, one might expect them to have been focussed on whether, from the medical perspective, the three elements of section 1 [i.e. a mental or physical impairment which had a substantial adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities] were or were not satisfied. Since, however, OH made no reference to such elements, neither Newport nor the ET could have had any idea whether OH considered (i) that Mr Gallop had no relevant physical or mental impairment at all; or (ii) that he did, but its adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day duties was neither substantial nor long-term, or (iii) that he did, but it had no effect on his ability to carry out such duties. OH’s opinion was, with respect, worthless. For reasons indicated, Newport had to form its own judgment on whether Mr Gallop was or was not a disabled person; and OH’s views on that topic were of no assistance to them.

Had the EAT been right, the problems that would have been caused by the judgment fell into sharp relief in this case. An employer, deliberately or innocently could have provided inadequate information to a doctor to assess disability in the sense in the Equality Act (or DDA in this case) and then relied upon an inaccurate report to negative its knowledge. Both sides (and the court) in Gallop agreed that for constructive knowledge, it was knowledge of the facts which led to a person being disabled, not whether as a matter of law those facts amounted to a disability which was relevant. That being the case it was difficult to see how a bald statement that a person is not disabled got past facts which the employer already knew about from which they could reasonably known a person was disabled.

In giving permission to appeal, Elias LJ said

…it might be thought surprising if an employer could say we have received advice that an employee is not disabled and rely on that.   I am very curious to see what the outcome is!

It might not have come as much of a surprise therefore that Rimer LJ giving the only reasoned judgment concluded that:

…the employer must not forget that it is still he, the employer, who has to make the factual judgment as to whether the employee is or is not disabled: he cannot simply rubber stamp the adviser’s opinion that he is not.

Overdue: a plan to tackle pregnancy & maternity discrimination

In 2005, three years before the global financial crisis of late 2008 and subsequent economic recession, a landmark study by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that half of all pregnant women suffered a related disadvantage at work, and that each year 30,000 were forced out of their job.  Eight years on, all the available evidence suggests that such pregnancy and maternity discrimination is now more common than ever before, and that as many as 60,000 women are pushed out of work each year.

Faced with mounting evidence of this proliferation of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, key government ministers have, until very recently, simply denied that there is a problem.  But in November, announcing £1 million of funding to enable the Equalities & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to undertake a new study of the issue, ministers finally accepted that such unlawful discrimination “remains prevalent and more needs to be done to tackle it”.

Unfortunately, since 2010 the Coalition Government has made it even harder than it was in 2005 for women to tackle such discrimination.  Access to already overstretched sources of free employment advice, such as law centres and CABx, has been shrunk by the abolition of almost all civil legal aid – since April, three law centres have closed their doors for good.  The ‘questionnaire procedure’ in employment tribunal discrimination claims – which facilitates the revealing of crucial information held by the employer but otherwise not available to the claimant – is set to be abolished in April 2014.  And, perhaps most damagingly of all, since July 2013 those wishing to pursue a tribunal claim for pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination must pay up to £1,200 in upfront tribunal fees.

Bringing a tribunal claim is a daunting challenge at the best of times, and especially so for pregnant women and new mothers: the odds are stacked against them at a time when they need to protect their own and their baby’s health, and their income.  The great majority do not have access to the support and advice of a trade union, and simply cannot afford to pay for legal advice.  The introduction of tribunal fees of up to £1,200 only serves to further deter women with well-founded claims from taking legal action.

With pregnant women and new mothers facing the biggest living standards crisis in a generation, and the Government asserting that “we cannot deal with the economic challenges we face without properly using the talents of women in the workplace”, a new report by Maternity Action – Overdue: a plan of action to tackle pregnancy & maternity discrimination now – suggests it is time for ministers to translate their grand words into action.  The scale of the problem – and the impact both on individual women and their families, and on gender equality more widely – demands a firm response from government to ensure job security for all women during their pregnancy and maternity leave.

The announcement of £1 million additional funding to enable the EHRC to undertake a new study of the incidence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination is very welcome, as is the belated recognition by ministers of the scale and systemic nature of the problem.  But the EHRC study is unlikely to report for some time, quite possibly not until late 2014, leaving little if any time for meaningful government action before the general election in May 2015.  In any case, the Government could very easily act now to better protect the rights of pregnant women and mothers at work.

Perhaps most importantly, Maternity Action says the Government should scrap – or at least reduce to a nominal level – the upfront fees for discrimination and other employment tribunal claims introduced in July 2013.  There is now a broad consensus – including both the TUC and the CBI – that the Ministry of Justice has got it badly wrong on fees, and that, at the very least, the fees regime should be “redesigned to incentivise early resolution of disputes rather than maximise revenue” for the Ministry.  In the words of the CBI, claimant “fees should never be a barrier to justice”.

Secondly, the Government should abandon its planned abolition of the ‘questionnaire procedure’ in discrimination claims.  The proposed abolition will benefit no one, and will save no public money.

Thirdly, the Government should establish a process for publicly ‘naming and shaming’ employers found by a tribunal to have broken the law on pregnancy, maternity or other discrimination.

Fourthly, the Government should take speedy and robust action to improve compliance with employment tribunal awards, to ensure that women awarded financial compensation for pregnancy or maternity discrimination by a tribunal actually receive the money due to them.

Fifthly, the Government should match its funding of the new EHRC investigation into the extent of pregnancy and maternity discrimination with funding for an information campaign aimed improving the awareness of both workers and employers of the law on such discrimination, and an injection of funding into the specialist information and advice services that pregnant women and new mothers need to help them protect their rights at work.

And, last but not least, the Government should send out a strong message to dinosaur employers that economic recession and ‘hard times’ are no excuse to flout the law.

Direct Disability Discrimination – the correct comparator

I have found that representatives often assume that the correct comparator in a direct disability discrimination claim is someone who is not disabled.

You can see why they make their assumption. S.13(1) provides:

“A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.”

In order to work out whether the protected characteristic causes the difference in treatment, you would want a comparator who does not have the characteristic. The protected characteristic is defined at EA 2010, s. 4 as “disability”. So it’s simple then: Person B has a disability and their comparator should be someone without a disability. Or is it that simple?

EA 2010, s. 23 tells us how to perform the comparison:

“(1)   On a comparison of cases for the purposes of section 13 … there must be no material difference between the circumstances relating to each case.

(2)   The circumstances relating to a case include a person’s abilities if –

(a)   on a comparison for the purposes of section 13, the protected characteristic is disability”

So, in a direct disability discrimination case, the comparator should have the same “abilities” as the claimant. But a person’s abilities (to carry out normal day to day activities) are a key element in determining whether or not they have the protected characteristic (EA 2010, s. 6(1)(b)), so if claimant and comparator have identical abilities, they may both have a disability.

Why would the Act provide for a test in which both claimant and comparator are disabled? The answer is to be found in the critical (and much ignored) EA 2010, ss 6(3)(a):

“In relation to the protected characteristic of disability –

(a)   a reference to a person who has a particular protected characteristic is a reference to a person who has a particular disability”” [My emphasis].

It is where the claimant’s particular disability is what causes the disparity in treatment that liability is established. The comparator may be another disabled person, provided that their particular disability is different to that of the Claimant.

Or have I got this wrong? This analysis means the scope of protection is much narrower than many assume. Perhaps so narrow that direct disability discrimination claims would only succeed very infrequently. Let’s have an argument in the comments below.