Although it is doubtful whether parliament had the workplace in mind when passing an Act designed to compensate victims in stalking cases, the Protection from Harassment Act continues to provide fresh battlegrounds for staff and employers alike.
While some say employees are becoming less successful in stress claims, employers fear that harassment will, instead, become the claim of choice for unhappy workers.
In the case of Judy Veakins v Kier Islington Limited, the issue of what behaviour amounts to harassment was yet again under scrutiny by the Court of Appeal.
Veakins was employed by Kier Islington as an electrician and worked trouble-free for the best part of two years, until she began reporting to a new supervisor.
The two had a dispute about wages which led to an embarrassing, public telling-off. This episode was followed by others and Veakins felt that she was being persistently picked on.
At the original trial, the judge ruled in favour of Kier Islington on the basis that the behaviours complained about did not come anywhere near the line of criminality which would bring them within Section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act.
Veakins appealed and the Court of Appeal has now ruled in her favour – basing its decision on the authorities of Majrowski v Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Trust (2005) and Conn v City of Sunderland (2007).
Lord Justice Maurice Kay said: “Courts are well able to recognise the boundary between conduct which is unattractive, even unreasonable, and conduct which is oppressive and unacceptable.”
“Veakins’ account of victimisation and demoralisation, which left her suffering from clinical depression, was not simply an account of unattractive and unreasonable conduct. Neither was it ordinary banter.
“[The supervisor’s] actions crossed the line into conduct which was oppressive, unreasonable and criminal.”
This outcome will be a worry for employers. While it is important to note the judge’s comments; namely that the conduct in this case was “extraordinary”, I would suggest many would not consider it so.
He also noted that most workplace cases such as this would be more fittingly considered in an Employment Tribunal.
In reality, I suspect the result of this case will mean that county court trial judges up and down the country will be left to decide on which side of the line the conduct complained about falls.
It is more than likely that the loser will then take the matter to the Court of Appeal as happened in this case.
It is worth noting that this case partly succeeded due to a lack of witnesses who could challenge Veakins’ claims, along with a lack of medical evidence on behalf of the defendant.
I would seriously question whether the supervisor’s actions were indeed “extraordinary. It will be up to the courts and practitioners to define “extraordinary”.
Roddy Macleod, partner, Weightmans.