Undignified exit

Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash

The dismissal of Sonia Khan

In August 2019, a story which was widely reported in the British media, caught my attention: the abrupt dismissal of Sonia Khan as a special adviser (or ‘Spad’) with the UK Government. Ms Khan had worked for two previous Chancellors of the Exchequer (the UK Finance Minister). She was summoned to a meeting with Dominic Cummings, the UK Prime Minister’s top political adviser and sacked. Ms Khan was ordered to surrender her security passes and escorted from Downing Street by an armed Police Officer. All in all, it was a very undignified and humiliating exit for Ms Khan. Needless to say, Mr Cummings did not follow any disciplinary procedure when he made the decision to give Ms Khan her marching orders.

This decision was far from wise and Ms Khan has an extremely strong case for unfair dismissal in terms of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (she has the necessary continuous service of more than 2 years required to bring such a claim and no warnings were issued to her).

This affair led to me think about humiliating dismissals by employers and whether the affected employee could claim damages for the manner of their sacking? In other words, can the sacked employee claim that their feelings were injured as a result of the way in which they s/he was dismissed?

Links to articles about Sonia Khan’s dismissal can be found below:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sajid-javid-dominic-cummings-fires-special-adviser-johnson-brexit-sonia-khan-a9085056.html

https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/no-10-must-pay-sajid-javids-fired-aide-tens-of-thousands-in-compensation-a4232216.html

Injury to feelings in discrimination claims

When discussing discrimination claims in terms of the Equality Act 2010 (primarily), I often stress the issue of injury to feelings as an element that will be included in the calculation of a final award by an Employment Tribunal.

In several Blogs (please see the end of this article for the relevant links), I have discussed the importance of the Vento Guidelines or Scale.

In Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police (No 2) [2003] EWCA Civ 1871 compensation limits of £15–25,000 were laid down in situations where injury to feelings was involved in cases involving sex and race discrimination. In Sturdy v Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust ET Case 1803960/2007 14th and 15th April 2009 the Employment Tribunal decided that, since Vento had been decided in 2003, a higher rate of inflation had to be considered hence the increased award made to a victim of age discrimination.

These awards for injury or hurt feelings have now become known as the Vento Guidelines and in Da’Bell v National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (2009) EAT/0227/09, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (sitting for England and Wales) brought them into line with inflation.

Since Da’Bell, the Vento guidelines are usually updated annually in line with inflation.

The current bands or scales (from 6 April 2020) are:

♦ £900 to £9,000 for the lower band

♦ £9,000 to £27,000 for the middle band

♦ £27,000 to £45,000 for the top band

What’s the situation with unfair dismissal claims?

In Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull City Council [2004] EWCA Civ 84, the English Court of Appeal set the cat amongst the pigeons when it stated that a compensatory award for unfair dismissal could also include injury to an employee’s feelings. The Court of Appeal was clearly relying upon an obiter remark made by Lord Hoffman during the decision of the House of Lords in Johnson v Unisys [2001] UKHL 13.

As far back as the decision by the short lived National Industrial Relations Court (1971-1974) in Norton Tool Co Ltd v Tewson [1972] EW Misc 1, the position was quite clear: the compensatory award in unfair dismissal claims did not include injury to an employee’s feelings in connection with the manner of the dismissal suffered by him or her.

Lord Hoffman’s obiter statement and the decision by the Court of Appeal in Dunnachie appeared to place this principle in considerable jeopardy and opened the door to what could have been a potentially significant, new development in unfair dismissal case law. Clearly, it would be advantageous for the House of Lords to provide a definitive ruling on this matter.

Subsequently, Kingston upon Hull City Council appealed against the judgement of the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords. 

On Thursday 15th July 2004, the House of Lords delivered its judgement in this case ([2004] UKHL 36). Their Lordships (Lord Hoffman amongst them – ironically) killed off any idea that an award for unfair dismissal could include injury to an employee’s feelings for the manner of the dismissal.

Compensation, therefore, in unfair dismissal claims will be concerned with the employee’s economic losses only.

Conclusion

The decision of the House of Lords in Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull City Council [2004] UKHL 36 was and remains a clear restatement of the orthodox position as set down by Sir John Donaldson all those years ago in Norton Tool Co Ltd.

As Lord Steyn, one of the Law Lords, remarked in Dunnachie:

“On the other hand, the correctness of the Norton Tool decision was not an issue in Johnson v Unisys. It is true that there were references by both sides in the oral argument to Norton Tool. But the House heard no adversarial argument exploring the correctness or otherwise of that decision. In these circumstances a definitive overruling of a decision which had stood for nearly 30 years would have been a little surprising.”

In fact, Lord Hoffman’s observation (and it was nothing more than observation we are now assured) could in no way be interpreted as an attempt to overturn a long-standing and well-established legal principle. Lord Hoffman, in Johnson v Unisys [2001], was not “inviting the House to overrule a longstanding decision on a point of statutory construction that was not in issue and not explored in opposing arguments.” The statement by Lord Hoffman was clearly obiter dictum i.e. things said by the way which do not form part of the actual court’s judgement and that was the end of the matter.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/hurt-feelings/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/09/bad-hair-day/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/23/exclusion/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/10/everyday-experiences-of-racism/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/22/sticks-and-stones-may-break-my-bones-but-names-will-never-hurt-me/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 8 April 2020

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sjcrossan1

A legal blog by the author of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice (3rd Edition: 2017; Hodder Gibson) Sean J. Crossan BA (Hons), LLB (Hons), MSc, TQFE I have been teaching law in Higher and Further Education for nearly 25 years. I also worked as an employment law consultant in a Glasgow law firm for over a decade. I am also a trade union representative and continue to make full use of my legal background. I am a graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Dundee, London and Strathclyde. Please note that this Blog provides a general commentary about issues in Scots Law. It is not intended as a substitute for in-depth legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem, you should always consult a suitably qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

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