£420,000+ race discrimination award upheld

Posted: 31st January 2013

A local authority which was ordered to pay more than £420,000 compensation to a disappointed job applicant in respect of race discrimination has failed to convince the Court of Appeal that the drain on public funds was disproportionate. Arguments that the London Borough of Hackney should not have been made jointly and severally liable to satisfy the award were rejected by the court.Hackney

The council will also have to pick up the very substantial legal costs of a case which spanned 12 years and encompassed ‘a Dickensian narrative of allegations and counter- allegations...misunderstandings, objections, complaints ...and repeated wrangling.’ The litigation was described by senior employment judge, Lord Justice Mummery, as ‘a 21st Century version of a 19th Century Chancery saga’.

The dispute began in 1999 when the claimant unsuccessfully applied for a job as a training and development coordinator and race discrimination caseworker with a charitable advice service that was partially funded by the council. An employee of the council had sat in on the selection committee.

The claimant, whose previous application for employment had also been rejected, took her case to an employment tribunal (ET) claiming that she had been racially discriminated against and victimised. Her complaints were upheld and she was awarded a total of £421,415 in compensation. She had previously been awarded £1,905 against the council employee involved in interviewing her in respect of ‘injury to feelings caused by race discrimination’.

The council argued on appeal that the ET had acted on a fundamentally flawed view of the nature of its vicarious liability for acts of discrimination committed by its employee. The very substantial sum it had been ordered to pay was incoherent and disproportionate when compared to the much smaller sum awarded against the primary discriminator, it was submitted.

Lord Justice Mummery, sitting with Lords Justice Rimer and Pitchford, expressed surprise at the size of the award, observing: ‘On the face of it £421,415 seems to be a great deal of money to compensate the claimant for acts of discrimination in two unsuccessful job interviews.’

Dismissing the council’s appeal, however, he said that there was no error of law in the ET’s decision to hold the council jointly and severally liable for the entire award, which included an element of aggravated damages. Despite the very large disparity between the award against the council and that against its employee, the ET’s apportionment exercise had not been erroneous.