A recent case involving HMRC illustrated some key messages for me about defending a disability case.

In McAllister v Revenue and Customs Commissioners, the employee worked for HMRC for 7 years. He suffered from anxiety and depression and was off work for long periods of time, although some of these absences were not related to his mental health issues. In the last 24 months of employment he had been off for 245 days over 23 different occasions. At the time of dismissal, he had been off for 7 months straight. Often employers want to know “are we in safe territory to dismiss?”. With numbers like that, I’d be saying “why are you still employing?”.

The employer concluded that that level and regularity of absence impacted on productivity and staff morale (all reasonable adjustments had been exhausted). It therefore decided to dismiss. The employee would ordinarily have been entitled to a payment under the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, but the amount paid to him was reduced by 50% because they were penalising certain behaviour. That behaviour included failure to answer calls, delaying returning relevant forms, displaying disruptive behaviour and turning up late during a phased return to work.

Unsurprisingly, the employee appealed the penalty and his award was increased to 80%. He also claimed discrimination arising from disability under S.15 of the Equality Act 2010 in relation to his dismissal and the reduction of the payment.

The employer agreed the employee was disabled – this is not worth challenging unless there is real doubt over the employee qualifying as disabled. The employer is better off focussing on the lack of discrimination.

In such a case the narrative the employer is looking to tell the Tribunal is basically that “yes the person is disabled, look at all the things we did to look after him and level the playing field (reasonable adjustments). Unfortunately, the level of absence got so bad it followed this pattern – look how much time the employee was taking off and how frequently (see the figures above). We tried to manage it, and this is the advice we got from occupational health and this is what we did but it made no difference”.

Where you can evidence that for the Tribunal, it is then likely to find, as here, that the dismissal was a proportionate means of achieving the employer’s aim of ensuring that staff were capable of demonstrating satisfactory attendance and a good standard of attendance, which also comprised the aims of the maintenance of a fair, effective and transparent sickness management regime, and the efficient use of resources. The Tribunal had found that M’s absence had a very real impact on HMRC’s use of resources, in particular, on time management and staff morale.

If you think about the compensation scheme, it is a benefit – to get a disability claim off the ground you have to be able to show an act of unfavourable treatment – here the employee failed to do so as follows: the relevant treatment was the payment to the employee, the object of which was to compensate the jobholder for loss of employment that is beyond his or her control. That was made because of dismissal due to disability-related absence and disability was behind that. However, being treated as entitled to a payment– was not unfavourable treatment; if anything, it was more favourable than it would have been if the employee had been dismissed for a reason other than his disability. This shows it is key to fighting cases to really drill down into the specific wording of the law – just because someone feels aggrieved about something doesn’t mean they will get themselves through that successfully.

Refreshing Law Ltd
1 February 2023