Case of the week: Tribunal right to extend time for disabled claimant

Department of Constitutional Affairs v Jones

In Department of Constitutional Affairs v Jones, the Court of Appeal concluded that a tribunal had been right to extend time for a claimant who refused to acknowledge his own disability.

Facts Mr Jones was chief executive of the North Wales Magistrates’ Courts Committee (NWMCC). Following allegations of financial irregularities, Jones was suspended and, shortly after, diagnosed as suffering from depression and anxiety.

On medical advice, Jones’s initial disciplinary hearing was postponed, but a further request for a postponement was rejected by the NWMCC. Jones’s hearing went ahead in his absence and he was dismissed with effect from 1 March 2005. The NWMCC ceased to exist from 31 March 2005.

Despite receiving advice from his wife, trade union and doctor that he was probably ‘disabled’ for the purposes of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, Jones initially refused to accept this was the case. He eventually acknowledged that he was suffering from depression, however, and submitted a disability discrimination claim on 5 July 2005 – after the ordinary three-month deadline. He asked the tribunal to extend time for submission of his claim on the basis that it was just and equitable to do so in all the circumstances of the case.

Decision The tribunal granted Jones an extension. In doing so, the tribunal focused on his genuine reluctance to accept that he was clinically depressed, together with the NWMCC’s eagerness to press ahead with the disciplinary proceedings before it ceased to exist. As a result, the tribunal found that in ordinary circumstances, Jones would have been dismissed at a later point, and would have had more time to conclude that he was disabled within the original time limit.

On appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and then the Court of Appeal, the NWMCC argued that Jones had made a conscious decision not to bring a claim based on the professional advice that he had received. On this basis, the NWMCC claimed that the tribunal’s decision had failed to take all relevant matters into account, and was perverse. This was rejected by the Court of Appeal, which said the tribunal was entitled to treat the central issue as being Jones’s state of mind at the relevant time.

Key implications At first glance, this case is worrying for employers in that it suggests late claims will be permitted to proceed where a claimant has ignored both legal and medical advice given to them.

However, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that the number of cases in which a tribunal is likely to accept that a claimant was genuinely unwilling to acknowledge that they were disabled must be few and far between. Depression and other such mental impairments are likely to be the only real examples, not least because a reluctance to accept the diagnosis is a common symptom of such illnesses.

Of wider implication for employers is the criticism levelled at the NWMCC in hurrying the disciplinary process to further its own interests. This was clearly at the heart of the tribunal’s decision to extend time, and the Court of Appeal decided that this was justified.

This case, therefore, serves as a useful reminder to employers to tread with extreme caution when pressing ahead with disciplinary proceedings against medical advice, particularly when the decision to dismiss is then taken in the employee’s absence.

Niki Walker,
Managing associate,
Addleshaw Goddard

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