Welcome back, following the release of the new James Bond film it seemed apt to cover a case concerning protected disclosures. Following on from the Chesterton precedent, today’s case strengthens the view that public disclosures can be made in relation to contractual disputes.
The question this week is:
Can a disclosure regarding contractual disputes be in the public interest?
Mr Underwood, the Claimant, worked as a HGV driver for Wincanton Plc, the Respondent, a large haulage firm. The Claimant and three colleagues submitted a letter to the Respondent, in accordance with their whistleblowing procedure, complaining that overtime was being distributed unfairly which was a breach of contract and resulted in many drivers earning substantially less income than others. The Claimant also highlighted that many of the drivers not being allocated overtime had raised concerns about the condition of their vehicles and whether they were road worthy. The Claimant was dismissed and despite having less than two years’ service was able to bring a claim before Tribunal as it concerned public interest disclosures (whistleblowing).
The ET struck out the claim stating that contractual disputes between employees and employers were not in the public interest. However, around this time the Chesterton judgment stated that if a sufficient number of people, including employees, were affected by the Claimant’s disclosure then it would qualify as being in the public interest. The Claimant used this as grounds to appeal and the EAT agreed. It said that even though only a small amount of people were affected by the disclosure the concerns over road safety had vast implications on the greater public. It also stated that the original decision conflicted the stance held in Chesterton and thus the appeal was allowed.
The takeaway point is that, yes, a disclosure relating to a contractual dispute can be in the public interest if the public are affected by the matter the dispute arises from or the number of employees affected constitutes a sufficient portion of the public. Furthermore this case highlights how an initial win for the Respondent was overruled by the judgment in another case meaning you should always be wary of appeals and current case law.
Somewhat ironically the decision in Chesteron has been appealed by the Respondent and will be heard in the Court of Appeal in October 2016. This may very well result in this judgement being overruled but in the meantime it should still be followed when dealing with whistleblowing cases. Watch this space.
For more whistleblowing cases click here.
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