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The consequences of discrimination in the workplace can be truly devastating and compensation awards to victims can be very substantial. In one case, a disabled bank worker who was stricken by a severe depressive disorder after suffering disability discrimination was awarded more than £4.7 million in damages (Royal Bank of Scotland Plc v AB).
The woman was run down by a car on the very day that she was due to start work for the bank as a customer services officer. She was unable to start her new job until two months later and endured significant physical disabilities throughout the four and a half years of her employment by the bank. Following her resignation, she launched Employment Tribunal (ET) proceedings.
The ET found that she had been constructively unfairly dismissed in that the bank had failed in its obligation to maintain the relationship of trust and confidence that should exist between employer and employee. It had also breached its implied duty to provide her with a safe working environment.
In also upholding her disability discrimination claim, the ET found that the bank had failed to make reasonable adjustments relating to her workstation and in requiring her to work on the till in the branch where she was employed. Discriminatory comments either to or about her had also been made on five occasions and the bank had not permitted her to transfer to a different branch.
In awarding her a total of £4,670,535, the ET accepted expert psychiatric evidence that the acts of discrimination had triggered a severe depressive disorder, with psychosis, and that it was likely she would never be able to work again. The majority of that award was in respect of lost earnings and the cost of care and assistance that she would require in the future.
In ruling on the bank's challenge to that outcome, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) rejected arguments that the ET should have reduced the amount of the award to take account of the possibility that her psychiatric condition would have occurred in any event by reason of her pre-existing vulnerability and psycho-social stressors that were unconnected with her employment.
Also rejected were the bank's arguments that the woman's failure to give evidence before the ET indicated that she had exaggerated her psychiatric ill-health and that the ET had failed to give adequate reasons for preferring the evidence of one expert psychiatric witness over that of another.
The EAT accepted that the ET had erred in law in refusing to review its earlier finding that it was unnecessary to carry out an assessment of whether the woman had the mental capacity required to litigate her case. Her presentation before the ET gave rise to a suspicion that she might lack such capacity.
The EAT concluded, however, that that error neither rendered the proceedings before the ET void nor meant that the hearing had been conducted unfairly. Although the bank's appeal was, in the one respect, allowed, the EAT ruled that the ET's order should stand. Interest was added to the woman's award, bringing it to £4,724,801.