In the recent case of Mace v Department for Work and Pensions: 1800842/2021, the Employment Tribunal held that the Claimant was discriminated against because of his disability and was unfairly dismissed.
The factual background in Mace v Department for Work and Pensions
Mr Mace worked as a fraud investigator for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for 39 years, from 26 May 1981, until his dismissal on 20 November 2020. Following his dismissal, Mr Mace brought claims of unfair dismissal and disability discrimination.
Mr Mace alleged the following had not been duly considered during his dismissal:
- When he accessed information on 12 February 2020 using the DWP’s database, CIS Searchlight, to search for details on his son regarding a personal matter, he was suffering from depression and anxiety;
- When he accessed information on the accounts of unknown people outside of his work on 15 May 2020 he was suffering from depression and anxiety;
- His mental health had not been taken into account in the decision to dismiss him for gross misconduct on 19 November 2020.
On or around 30 October 2019, Mr Mace completed some training on various company policies including the Acceptable Use Policy which referred to the appropriate use of the DWP’s information technology resources. That policy included the instruction that “users will not attempt to access personal data unless there is a valid business need that is appropriate to your job role.”
Nevertheless, the first incident occurred on 12 February 2020, when Mr Mace accessed information on CIS Searchlight. This is a bespoke database used by DWP that contains large amounts of personal information on the majority of UK residents. He used this database to access his son’s personal details to find out information on certain aspects of his private life. Mr Mace claimed that his judgment was impaired due to concern he had for his son and he merely wanted to put his mind at ease.
Following this, the second incident occurred on 15 May 2020, when Mr Mace used the CIS Searchlight database to access details of random people. Undisputedly, Mr Mace put his own postcode into CIS Searchlight and then accessed a number of records listed under the same postcode. Mr Mace was unable to provide reasoning behind why he accessed this information, claiming he has not dealt well with working from home and his mental health had deteriorated considerably.
As a result, on 24 July 2020, Mr Pace signed off sick from work due to depression and while off work his unauthorised access was brought to the attention of the respondent. On 19 August 2020, Mr Pace was suspended and informed of allegations against him relating to unauthorised access of records using CIS Searchlight. He was also notified that Mr Ralph Couldwell, had been appointed to investigate the following allegations. Mr Mace had accessed departmental computer systems on 29 January 2020 (this incident was not found to be mental health-related), 12 February 2020 and 15 May 2020 without a valid business reason.
Following a disciplinary meeting, on 19 November 2020, Mr Pace was dismissed without notice for gross misconduct via a letter from Mr Mason, the Senior Team Leader. Mr Pace then submitted an appeal against his dismissal on On 25 November 2020, the grounds for which were that his mental health had not properly been taken into consideration. This appeal was not upheld.
The Employment Tribunal decision
Discrimination arising from disability
Upon being presented with this case, the Employment Tribunal first had to consider whether the actions in question, namely the accessing of records by Mr Mace, were something that arose due to his disability. To this question, they found that his disability was in fact, an effective cause. Secondly, they had to consider whether the respondent had acted proportionately by dismissing Mr Mace in the protection of a legitimate aim. To this question, the Employment Tribunal found that they had not. In this case, it was not proportionate to dismiss Mr Mace without obtaining further information about his mental state at the time of the incidents. As a consequence, his claim of disability discrimination was successful.
The Employment Tribunal then considered his claim of unfair dismissal and found that information had been provided by Mr Mace, on numerous instances, that his unauthorised access was related to his mental health, yet the respondent had failed to undertake any further investigation. In their judgement, they stated that “no reasonable employer faced with the clear, repeated assertions from the claimant about the impact of his mental health would have dismissed their employee without making further enquires or explicitly inviting the claimant to produce further evidence.” Based on these reasons Mr Mace’s claim of unfair dismissal was also successful.
Our lawyers view on the case of Mace v Department for Work and Pensions
Rebekka Kreisz, paralegal at Redmans, commented on the case: “This case shows a surprising lack of empathy and recognition of the long faultless service (nearly 40 years) put in by a valued member of staff, as well as a lack of accommodation or recognization of the effect of mental illness on performing a job. This is all the more surprising (as noted by the Employment Tribunal) from a public sector/government civil service employer with strong policies in place to protect staff from inequality and discrimination and promote wellbeing and equality in the workplace.”
The decision of the Employment Tribunal in Mace v Department for Work and Pensions 1800842/2021 can be found here.