Extended Criminal Record Certificates – A Balance Must Be Struck

Those who work with children or vulnerable adults are required to have extended criminal record certificates (ECRCs) so that prospective employers can judge whether they are fit to perform such sensitive roles. However, as one Court of Appeal case showed, a careful balance has to be struck between disclosure of information and the serious blight that might cause to an individual’s career.

The case concerned a teacher who vehemently denied claims that he had made sexually inappropriate comments to students, aged between 17 and 24, during a college trip abroad. His local police force decided, however, that it was necessary to include those allegations on his ECRC. That made it very unlikely that he would be able to find employment in his chosen field, but his judicial review challenge to the decision was dismissed by the High Court.

In upholding his appeal against that ruling, the Court of Appeal found that the police decision was unbalanced and disproportionate. The man’s ECRC made no mention of the fact that the Independent Safeguarding Authority had approved him as fit to continue teaching children. It was clear that the police had failed to take account of a relevant factor when reaching the decision. The ECRC was quashed.

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The Firm’s Annual Christmas Party

The annual Christmas party gives employers the opportunity to thank members of staff for their contribution over the past year and is a chance for everyone to relax and enjoy the holiday season. However, it is easy to forget that an employer owes its employees certain obligations, even outside work, when the event has been organised by the employer, and that employees’ conduct during it should comply with normal standards and should not breach workplace equal treatment and anti-harassment policies. An employer may be held vicariously liable for the actions of employees at such functions as they are likely to be considered as having occurred ‘in the course of employment’.

In order to prevent what should be a happy occasion from leading to recriminations or worse, an employer should take certain basic steps. Here are some of the more important ones:

  • When planning any work event, thought should be given to whether it will coincide with the dates of religious festivals;
  • Carry out a risk assessment – this should include the venue and, in particular, the possible risks associated with serving alcohol. Making sure employees can get home safely is important, so consider hiring transport or providing taxis if necessary. Ensure soft drinks are provided as an alternative to alcoholic drinks and that individual dietary requirements are catered for;
  • Ensure that, if employees’ partners are invited, there is no discrimination with regard to who is included. Ensure also that reasonable adjustments are made to allow any disabled employee or partner to attend and that any employees absent on maternity leave or because of long-term sickness are included;
  • Where possible, make sure that the arrangements accommodate the requirements of employees of different religions;
  • Ensure that employees understand the difference between ‘banter’ and behaviour that could be considered to infringe the dignity of any person present…and if such behaviour occurs, act quickly to prevent a reoccurrence. Take prompt action if a complaint is received;
  • Make sure that employees who are expected to attend work the day after the function understand that absence through over-indulgence is likely to be regarded as a disciplinary rather than a medical matter; and
  • Make sure employees are aware that any illegal acts will not be tolerated.

The biggest problems that are likely to arise are that inappropriate behaviour may occur, especially if alcohol flows too freely, and that there may be conduct which members of a particular religious persuasion find objectionable.

Your firm’s contract of employment will probably deal with most or all of these issues. However, it is sensible to have a separate policy on what is expected of employees at workplace social events and to remind employees of its contents in advance of any function.

In one vicarious liability case, a claim was brought by an employee who was punched in the face by a colleague and suffered serious brain injury some time after a group of employees had left the firm’s Christmas party and adjourned to a nearby hotel. The High Court ruled that the employer could not be held liable for serious injuries inflicted by one member of staff on another some hours after the planned Christmas event had finished. This makes clear the wisdom of organising an event with an obvious finishing time, such as a meal at a restaurant, so that those who wish to continue to celebrate afterwards do so at a venue of their choice.

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Discrimination – Identifying the Right Comparator Can be Problematic

The usual way of detecting discrimination is to conduct a comparison between the treatment of complainants and colleagues in a similar position. However, as one Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision illustrated, identifying an appropriate comparator is frequently problematic.

The case concerned a doctor who claimed that her employer’s two-thirds final salary pension scheme unlawfully discriminated against those who had worked both full time and part time during their careers. She had retired after working for 27 years for the same employer and was awarded about 78 per cent of a full pension. That was on the basis that, when periods of part-time work were taken into account, she had completed the equivalent of 21 years’ full-time service.

In complaining to an Employment Tribunal (ET), she argued that a full-time worker who had worked for 20 years or more would have qualified for a full pension. It was submitted that the scheme was infected by double pro-rating in the case of those with some part-time service and that she had been put at a particular disadvantage.

Her claim was, however, dismissed on the basis that making use of her suggested full-time comparator would have failed to take account of a critical feature of the scheme – that benefit accrual rates under it depended on the employee’s age on joining the employer and the years remaining until normal pension age.

In rejecting her challenge to that decision, the EAT could detect no error of law in the ET’s decision on the comparator issue. It was unfortunate that the ET had cut and pasted the majority of its decision, on an almost word-for-word basis, from the employer’s written arguments. However, its reasoning was sufficient to enable her to understand its conclusion that she was not being paid less by way of pension entitlement than a comparable full-time worker.

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Restaurant Owner Pays with His Liberty for Peanut Allergy Sufferer’s Death

Disregarding health and safety rules can put your liberty, as well as the welfare of your staff and customers, in jeopardy. The owner of a restaurant that served a peanut allergy sufferer with a fatal dish found that out to his cost.

The customer had an allergy so severe that it could be triggered by mere proximity to peanuts. He took no chances and, before ordering a takeaway curry from the restaurant, sought and received confirmation that the dish contained no nuts. After eating it, however, he went into severe anaphylactic shock and died.

It later emerged that the restaurant was in serious financial difficulties and that cheap ingredients, which included peanuts, had been used in preparing the dish. Staff had been warned by a trading standards officer just a week before the fatal incident that customers must be told that their meals contained nuts. The owner was subsequently prosecuted and jailed for six years after being found guilty of manslaughter and six breaches of food safety standards.

The facts of the case emerged as the Court of Appeal found that the evidence against the owner was overwhelming and rejected his challenge to the manslaughter conviction. Despite his previous good character, the Court was also wholly unpersuaded that his jail term was excessive. The customer had died due to gross negligence, driven by money, that had persisted for months.

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Restrictive Covenant in Engineer’s Contract Passes Reasonableness Test

Restrictive covenants in employment contracts involve the imposition of restraints on employees’ personal freedom and have to be reasonable to be enforceable. In one case, the High Court ruled that a clause in an engineer’s contract that prevented him from working for competitors for 12 months passed that test.

The engineer worked for a company that specialised in making high-tech consumer goods and was obsessed by maintaining the confidentiality of its research. He was put to work on a secret project to develop a new electric car shortly after he had received a conditional offer of employment from an electric car manufacturer. He did not inform his employer of that development.

His employment contract contained a restrictive covenant that, amongst other things, forbade him from working for any company that operated in a similar field to his employer for a 12-month period after leaving his job. After the car manufacturer’s offer was made final and the engineer announced his resignation, his employer launched proceedings to hold him to the terms of the covenant.

He argued that the covenant, which had a worldwide reach, was void in that it placed excessive restraints on his freedom to make a living. However, the Court found that the restrictions were no wider than was reasonably necessary to protect the employer’s commercial interest in preserving its trade secrets.

The Court acknowledged that the engineer and the car manufacturer had acted in good faith and that there was no reason to suspect that the engineer intended to divulge his employer’s confidential information to the car manufacturer. However, the purpose of the covenant was not merely to restrain deliberate disclosure of confidential information and there was a real risk of innocent breach.

Whilst expressing sympathy for the engineer, the Court noted that he was largely the author of his own misfortune in unwisely failing to tell his employer of the conditional offer he had received before embarking on the secret project. The Court issued an injunction restraining him from taking up his new post for 12 months from the date on which he left his job.

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