Mba, Article 9 and Indirect Discrimination

December 5th, 2013 by Sean Jones QC

Ms Eweida, you may recall, is the British Airways employee who wanted to wear a cross on a necklace over her uniform so that others could see it. She considered that that was a religious belief. Over-simplifying, doing what she wanted to do meant a breach of her employer’s dress code. Ms Eweida complained that, amongst other things, she was the victim of an act of indirect discrimination.

The test of indirect discrimination is now to be found at Equality Act 2010s. 19. The constituent elements of the test are:

  1. A provision, criterion or practice (“PCP”) must be applied to the claimant;
  2. The respondent must apply it (or the Tribunal must be satisfied that they would apply it) to people who do not share the claimant’s protected characteristic (in this case, holding the belief);
  3. The PCP “puts, or would put, persons with whom [the claimant] shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage”;
  4. The PCP puts or would put the claimant at that disadvantage; and
  5. The respondent cannot show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

In the domestic proceedings Ms Ewieda failed at the third hurdle. She could not establish that there were others who shared her particular belief. This is often referred to as the requirement for a “group disadvantage”. Solitary disadvantage, the Court of Appeal found, was insufficient. Denied a domestic remedy, Ms Eweida went to the European Court of Human Rights. Again, rather over-simplifying, the ECtHR decided that the wearing of a crucifix in the manner proposed by Ms Eweida amounted to a manifestation of religion falling within Art 9(2) of the Convention:

Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The Court decided that the interference with the manifestation was not, in the particular circumstances, proportionate. The UK should have protected Ms Eweida’s right to manifest her religion and had failed to do so.

Whilst the reasoning was clear it left unaddressed a very significant question. The claim had not failed because the Court of Appeal had decided that the PCP could not be justified; it failed because it could not be shown to have had the necessary indirectly discriminatory effect. The question of justification did not arise. So was the effect of the ECtHR’s decision that element 3 of the statutory test was to be regarded as incompatible with Article 9.

The Court of Appeal has now addressed this question in its decision in Mba v Mayor and Burgesses of the London Borough of Merton. Mrs Mba wanted to obey the Fourth Commandment and refrain from working on Sundays. The Council needed to provide care 24 hours a day and seven days a week to those living in the children’s home at which Mrs Mba worked. Having accommodated her desire not to be rostered on Sundays for a period, the Council decided that it could no longer continue to do so. Following an unsuccessful grievance, Mrs Mba resigned.

It was accepted that the requirement to work Sundays was indirectly discriminatory. The argument was focussed on issue 5 above: whether the justification defence was available. There was no dispute that the Council had a legitimate aim so that the argument was focused, narrowly, on the question of proportionality. It was not a case, therefore, directly concerned with what one might call “the unresolved Eweida question”.

The Employment Tribunal had, in assessing proportionality, taken into account three specific factors. Only one matters for present purposes: the Tribunal had taken into account the fact that sabbatarianism was not, in its view, a “core component of the Christian faith”. A lot of Christians work on Sundays.

Christians might take the objection that judging what religion requires by what adherents actually do is a misguided exercise. We are all sinners. The Court focused on a rather different issue: whether the number of people affected was relevant to justification.

Maurice Kay LJ decided that that the Tribunal had erred in its approach to justification. It should not have been asking how many Christians were affected. It should have been looking at the extent of the impact on sabbatarians, i.e. those who shared Ms Mba’s particular belief. Once one was satisfied that others were affected adversely (so as to jump hurdle 3), the number of those affected was not something that was relevant to the assessment of proportionality. He specifically did not place reliance on either Article 9 or Eweida which he considered to be a case that was “entirely fact sensitive”.

Elias and Vos LJ took a different approach – one that depended upon the impact of Article 9. Patrick Elias (whom I adore with a near religious fervour) tackles the unresolved Eweida question head on. He says the “group disadvantage” requirement (ie, hurdle 3) cannot be read down. Reconciling the domestic legislation with the Eweida decision will, therefore, either take a differently minded Supreme Court or legislation. Article 9 could be used, however, to determine how the proportionality question should be answered. The effect of Eweida was that:

It does not matter whether the claimant is disadvantaged along with others or not, and it cannot weaken her case with respect to justification that her beliefs are not more widely shared or do not constitute a core belief of any particular religion.

Both Elias and Kay LJJ took the view that the smaller the group that shared a claimant’s belief the easier it should be to accommodate it. If number of adherents was a relevant issue, therefore, it had the opposite effect to that which the respondent might have supposed.

With all three judges deciding that the Tribunal had erred in law, did Mrs Mba win? Nope. It was decided that since there was in practice no way of accommodating Mrs Mba’s beliefs, the outcome would have been no different even if the Tribunal had adopted he correct analysis.

Sean Jones QC


Bankers’ Bonuses: The EU acts

March 6th, 2013 by Sean Jones QC
  • What is proposed?

The proposals are not a cap in the traditional sense because there is no fixed maximum amount that someone affected by the proposals will be entitled to earn. The proposed rules will require that the ratio of basic salary to bonus should not exceed 1:1. In other words, the value of the bonus should be no greater than the value of the banker’s basic salary.

However, the ratio can be raised to 1:2 with the express permission of the shareholders. The proposals stipulate with some care the majority necessary to pass any proposal to permit the higher level of remuneration. Where permission is obtained for the more generous entitlement, 25% of the bonus must be deferred for at least 5 years.

  • Who has agreed these proposals?

European Parliament and Council negotiators. On 5 March 2013, George Osborne failed to persuade the EU’s Economic and Financial Affairs Council to re-open negotiations. It is thought that some limited further tweaking may be possible. The political agreement will require the agreement of the Member States and the European Parliament in April 2013. The UK will not be entitled to veto the proposals. If the political agreement is ratified, the UK will have to introduce implementing legislation by 1 January 2014.

  • What is the significance of this announcement?

Commentators’ views have covered every part of the spectrum from talk of the cataclysmic destruction of London as a financial centre through to prosaic predictions that amending pay structures may well leave the sector relatively undisturbed. From an employment lawyer’s point of view the notion of direct control of UK workers’ maximum remuneration by Europe is, at first glance, an unsettling one. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that there has already been some limited domestic regulation of bonuses (see the FSA Remuneration Code).

  • Is this an attack on the free market? Are other sectors subject to such limitations?

It depends to some extent on how free the market you are envisaging is. No-one believes that banks and their activities should be beyond the reach of regulators. The background to the package of reforms of which the bonus proposals form part is the widely perceived need (to quote the Bank for International Settlements) to “strengthen the regulation, supervision and risk management of the banking sector”.

The proposals include new requirements in respect of retained capital and transparency which are intended to move banking in Europe towards compliance with the regime developed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and favoured by the G20, known as Basel III.

The controversial question is whether, as part of this package of regulation, there is any need for direct control of bankers’ pay. The European perspective is that the global economic crisis was at least in part caused by bank employees taking on too much risk. It is thought that the emphasis on remuneration by bonus within the sector incentivized irrational risk taking. Neither proposition is uncontroversial. The causes of the crisis are unlikely to be quite so simple and the suggestion that bonuses increase risk-taking seems to be based more on intuition than study.

  • The UK government was the sole voice of dissent, is there any way in which the government could challenge or limit the effect of the decision?

It would be very surprising if the Government were not able to find a lawyer willing to advise them that the rules on bonuses may fall outside the competence of the European Union. A legal challenge to the validity of the rules cannot be ruled out. The length of the shrift that the European Court may give the challenge is a different question.

There has also been talk of the UK invoking the “Luxembourg Compromise”. It sounds like the title of the world’s dullest thriller but refers to a convention, the present scope of which is itself controversial, for there to be a veto where a proposal adversely affected a state’s “very important national interest”. It remains to be seen whether George Osborne would be prepared to risk playing that card. To play it and lose would likely have very considerable political consequences.

  • What impact will this have on remuneration structures in the banking sector?

They will adapt to meet the new regime. The likelihood is that banks will seek shareholder approval for proposals to allow them to use the 1:2 ratio and fixed salaries will increase.

  • What are the relevant merits/downsides of the various options:
    • Higher basic salary

The principal merit of this approach is that it allows the same total remuneration to be implemented as had previously been in place without any requirement for shareholder approval. It should enable employers, therefore, to forestall the possibility of significant desertions. If one accepts the premise that variable pay encourages risk taking increasing the proportion of income that is fixed should cause employees to take fewer chances.

From the bank’s point of view, decoupling remuneration from results may have a number of disadvantages. When an employee’s performance falls off, the impact on income is lessened. When the bank’s overall performance is affected, cost cutting may require re-negotiation of terms and conditions rather than changing the often non-contractual terms of a bonus policy.

  • Shareholder permission to exceed basic cap

This approach does not, by itself, allow replication of previously more generous remuneration arrangements (although it can be combined with increases to basic salary). Arguably, subsequent changes to bonus arrangements may require fresh shareholder approval complicating negotiations with high-value employees in circumstances where competitors based elsewhere may have greater immediate freedom of action.

  • Supplementary (non-cash) benefits

Non-cash benefits may be unattractive to employees, can have complex taxation treatments and are difficult to operate with sufficient flexibility to allow total remuneration to be closely correlated with performance.

  • Do you believe financial institutions will leave Europe?

Whether individual bankers want to leave will depend on whether the amount of money they are paid is the determinative factor for where they work. It has to be admitted that it would not be entirely surprising if the people with that worldview were disproportionately represented amongst the group of highest paid bank employees. A degree of international mobility is already commonplace in the banking industry. If institutions fear the loss of individuals or, worse still, of teams, they may be persuaded that replicating existing business in a less restrictive jurisdiction makes good commercial sense. In the meantime, they may wish to put lawyers specialising in team poaching cases on speed dial.

Sean Jones QC


The Dynamic Do-over: The Advocate General’s opinion in Alemo-Herron

February 22nd, 2013 by Sean Jones QC

What’s the point of the TUPE? Other than terrorising HR professionals and inspiring books as good as this one, that is? Its essential function is simple: to protect the employment and the terms and conditions of employees affected by a change in the ownership of the undertaking they work in or (for now at least) by a change in the identity of the provider of a service. The eye-popping complexity for which TUPE disputes are famous arises from trying to apply that simple principle to the messy business that is real life employment. The CJEU is presently pondering one example of the conceptual difficulties that can be thrown up in Alemo-Herron and others v Parkwood Leisure Limited C-426/11 and Advocate General Cruz Villalon has just delivered his opinion.

The employees in the Parkwood case started out working in the Public Sector. More specifically, they worked for Lewisham LBC dealing with leisure activities. As local government employees, their terms and conditions were negotiated by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services. The NJC is a body which gathers together trade union representatives and local government employers. They negotiate the core terms and agreements applicable to local government employees. Those terms are set out in what is known as “the Green Book”. Other terms are then settled by local collective agreements. The contracts of employment issued to individual employees usually provide that where the NJC agrees new terms those terms will be incorporated into the employee’s contract. Thus, if the NJC agrees a pay rise, all employees then have a contractual entitlement to receive that increase.

In 2002 Lewisham contracted out its leisure services. The employees, as a result, found themselves in the Private Sector. A further transfer brought them into the employment of Parkwood Leisure Limited.

In 2004 a dispute arose about pay. At the heart of the dispute was a very simple question: who was to decide what pay the employees should receive? Parkwood had a simple answer: they were the employer so they decided what to pay their own employees. Not so fast! Lurking ominously in the corner was TUPE and TUPE cannot abide simple answers.  The employees countered with their own answer: the NJC continued to set their pay. The argument runs as follows: “Our contracts of employment with Lewisham said that our pay was set by the NJC. When we transferred our terms and conditions were protected. Specifically, the term which provides for our pay to be set by the NJC was protected.” If the employees were right that meant that Parkwood would have to pay its employees at rates set by a negotiation that they could not participate in.

The two different arguments about how TUPE works have been given handy labels. Parkwood’s contention that TUPE takes a sort of “snapshot” of entitlements at the date of transfer and thereafter amendments are for the employees and their new employer to agree is known as the “static” approach. The employees’ argument that TUPE preserved their right to have the NJC set pay on an ongoing basis is known as the “dynamic” approach. The CJEU has been asked by the Supreme Court to decide which approach is the correct one.

The Advocate General favours the dynamic interpretation. He observes that Article 3(3) of Directive 2001/23 (the European Directive that TUPE implements) permits the dynamic approach and notes that there is a line of UK authority giving effect to it. He also points out that the Directive allows Member States to set a limit (subject to a minimum of a year) on the continued effect of transferred collective agreements. The UK did not take advantage of that opportunity. He is further influenced by the fact that the parties, he says, are free to agree to a variation of the contract that would remove the reference to the collective negotiations.

The Advocate General’s last point is a difficult one. Parties are not entirely free to agree to vary contracts post-transfer. Any variation, even if expressly consented to, will be ineffective if “the sole or principal reason for the variation is … the transfer itself; or … a reason connected with the transfer which is not an economic, technical or organisational reason entailing changes in the workforce” (TUPE Reg 4(5)). Removing a reference to a collective agreement with which a transferee has been stuck as a result of a transfer would, on its face, likely be for a “reason connected with the transfer”. It would be difficult to see on what basis it could be said to be for a reason “entailing changes in the workforce”.

The likely effect, therefore, is that should the CJEU do what many expect it to and endorse the Advocate General’s opinion, the ability of private sector employers to take control of their own pay negotiations will depend on the Government stepping in to restrict the protection for employees to the minimum the Directive allows. By happy chance, that is what the Government purports to be determined to do in any event.


NHS Leeds v Larner

July 27th, 2012 by Sean Jones QC

I am going to miss Lord Justice Mummery. His judgments are models of clarity and his instincts are flawless. When you lose, as I did comprehensively in Larner, you know exactly why and the merits of the alternative analysis are put so persuasively you struggle to disagree even when you are paid to.

The critical question in the appeal is identified in the opening paragraph of the judgment:

“In what circumstances is a worker, who has not taken paid annual leave in the relevant leave year because of absence from work on long term sick leave, entitled to payment in lieu?”

After a meticulous analysis of the European and Domestic legislation (and a graceful if merciless dissection of my submissions on behalf of the Appellant) the question is answered in the final paragraph:

“(1) The claimant was entitled to paid annual leave in the leave year 2009/10;

(2) She was prevented from taking her paid annual leave because she was sick;

(3) She was entitled to carry her untaken paid annual leave forward to the next leave year in 2010/11 without making a prior request to do so;

(4) As her employment was terminated in that year, before she could take the carried forward leave, she was entitled to payment on termination for the paid annual leave she had been prevented from taking”

It was the third point that was the core issue in the appeal. reg 13 of the WTR does not appear to allow untaken leave to be carried over at all. It was clear from Stringer (C-520/06), Schultz-Hoff (C-350/06), Pereda (C-277/08) and other cases before the ECJ that carry over had to be allowed if sickness prevented the employee from having the opportunity to take the leave during the year in which it accrued. It was argued, however, that Pereda required that a specific request to carry over be made in the absence of which the entitlement was lost. Their Lordships concluded that references in Pereda to carry over requests merely reflected the particular facts of the case and were not an articulation of a general principle that a request was always necessary.

The claimant was able to rely on the Working Time Directive (as NHS Leeds was an emanation of the State). However , the Court concluded that the Domestic Law would in any event have had to be read in such a manner as to reach the same result in private sector cases.

The Court left open the question whether the period of additional leave conferred by Reg 13A had to be dealt with in the same way. The CJEU case of Neidel (C-337/10) suggested that it did not but the Appellent was refused permission to take the point as it had not been taken below.


Protected Conversations

November 22nd, 2011 by Sean Jones QC

The Governing Coalition is presently proposing to introduce the concept of a “protected conversation” into employment law. The following is taken from a speech given by David Cameron on 10 November 2011:

But if employers are so concerned about the prospect of being taken to tribunal that they don’t feel they can have frank conversations with their employees many companies just won’t feel able to create those jobs in the first place.

That’s why I want to deregulate and cut back on bureaucracy. Not simply to help business but to create fair, simple processes that are good for business and good for employees too.
So we will be consulting on the introduction of protected conversations, so a boss and an employee feel able to sit down together and have a frank conversation – at either’s request.”

The proposal is favoured by Nick Clegg who has said that protected conversations would allow employers and employees:

“to treat each other like human beings and not like potential litigants”

He echoed the suggestion that the employers felt the need for such a measure:

“Employers tell us they’re afraid to have frank discussions with staff… or fear of those exchanges being used against them unfairly, should a dispute end up at tribunal.”

Whilst the CBI has expressed enthusiasm, it is worth noting that this does not seem to be something that organisations representing employees are calling for. For that reason, I am going to concentrate in this post on whether the proposals make sense from an employer’s point of view.

What is a Protected Conversation?

We presently know very little about what the Government has in mind beyond the essential idea that employers should, in certain circumstances, be able to say what they like to employees without having their words quoted back at them in tribunal proceedings. For a lawyer, the immediate analogue is a “without prejudice” (or “WP”) discussion. Where two parties to a legal dispute wish to negotiate with a view to compromise they can do so on a WP basis. They can be as “frank” as they wish in the knowledge that, subject to some narrowly drawn exceptions, the court will not be told about what they have said. The “protected conversation” seems to be an attempt to extent the WP principle into the heart of the employment relationship, covering situations where there is no legal dispute to resolve. Of course, since the policy that underpins WP privilege is the public interest in resolving legal disputes without recourse to the courts, extending the principle to cases where there is no legal dispute to be resolved means that a different policy justification is required.

What is the policy justification? It has yet to be precisely articulated, but David Cameron’s speech suggests that it is something along the following lines: Tribunal cases are an expensive inconvenience and a disincentive to job creation. I do not propose to deal with whether that premise is correct. I want to concentrate instead on more practical issues.

When would an employer want to have a “protected conversation”?

The example most frequently cited has been a situation in which an employer has concerns about an employee’s performance. The employer, it is proposed, will invite the employee to a meeting, express dissatisfaction with a great frankness and send them off to improve. It is difficult to understand why an employer would want to have that conversation on a “protected” basis. A protected conversation would only make sense if employers were regularly getting into trouble by being too frank with employees about performance concerns. In fact, the opposite is true. Where an employer relies on poor performance as the reason for termination, the most likely ground of unfairness is a failure to warn the employee early enough and explicitly enough that they are under-performing and that their job is at risk. The protected conversation makes that problem worse because the employer would not be allowed to tell the tribunal about the warning that they had given the employee. In performance cases, the more open an employer is the better.

One situation in which having a conversation on a protected basis would make sense is where the message the employer wants to communicate is not “you need to improve or you’ll be sacked” but rather “we’ve decided to sack you. Do you want to go quietly or do I have to push you through a performance procedure?” That sort of conversation frequently does get employers into trouble with the Tribunal. Speaking personally, my problem with giving that kind of conversation protected staus is that I think employers should get into trouble. There is no good policy reason for allowing employers to conceal the fact that their procedures are a sham.

How effective would the protection be?

Here is a bit of advice I give the Government for free: Attempts to exclude things from the Tribunal’s jurisdiction will result in more hearings. It is a phenomenon known to gleeful lawyers as “satellite litigation”. Employers who thought that they were protected from the costs of tribunal proceedings will find that they have to spend time and money trying to persuade the tribunal that they can rely on the protection.

Although the proposals need fleshing out, it is fantastically unlikely that an employer will be able to rely on merely invoking the “protected conversation” process to keep the Tribunal’s nose out of what was said. It is unlikely, for instance, that the employer will be entitled to rely on the cloak of secrecy to do any of the following:

(1) Conceal an act of discrimination;
(2) Conceal an act of bullying or harassment; or
(3) Prevent the employee from relying upon a protected disclosure made during the course of the conversation.

On the first point, one of the specific situations in which Nick Clegg appears to have thought a protected conversation might be useful is where an employer wants to talk about retirement. That suggests that he may have in mind protecting employers against age discrimination claims. If he does, he is likely to be disabused rapidly. The anti-discrimination measures are under-pinned by European legislation which requires that there should be an effective remedy for acts of discrimination. It is unlikely that the UK courts and tribunals are going to conclude that an employer will be free to discriminate provided he does so having uttered the magic words “this is a protected conversation”.

Other matters that will need to be settled

Beyond the cases identified above, there is a whole range of other difficult practical questions including the following:

(1) Can an employee refuse to have a protected conversation?
(2) Is there any limit to the number of conversations that an employer can require?
(3) Will an employee be entitled to be accompanied at a protected conversation meeting?
(4) Will the mere invocation of the process be enough or will an employer have to show that the conversation meets qualifying criteria?
(5) Will the employee be precluded from relying on an employer’s behaviour to found a constructive dismissal claim even where it is clear that the conversation resulted in a breakdown of trust and confidence?
(6) Can an employer convert a conversation into a “protected” conversation as it is happening?
(7) Can an employer convert a conversation from a “protected” conversation as it is happening?

The Government will no doubt say these issues will be thrashed out in consultation. However, it is worth taking a step back and asking whether a measure that poses so many practical difficulties is worth pursuing when the benefits it can deliver are so uncertain.


Where witnesses go wrong

November 11th, 2011 by Sean Jones QC

Sean Jones talks to People Management about where witnesses go wrong, at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition 2011 in Manchester- click here


BIS hides their hand again

September 28th, 2011 by Sean Jones QC

One of the key passages in the BIS Second Statement of New Regulation contains one or two “drafting errors”. It now reads:

 “[The Government has] Consulted on changes to employment law that will give business the confidence to take on staff. We are proposing to increase the qualifying period for employees to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years and we will be introducing fees for lodging employment tribunal claims to transfer the cost burden from tax payers to the users of the system.”

So, we are told, no final decision has been taken as to whether or not to increase the qualifying period. Form your own conclusions as to how meaningful any forthcoming consultation is likely to be. At the same time (and mysteriously) the justification for introducing fees for commencing tribunal claims has changed from discouragement of vexatious litigation to redistribution of the cost burden. That justification is the one that the Government led with when formulating the proposal for consultation. Note that there is no question that fees “will be” introduced.

Thanks to Daniel Barnett who winkled the information out of BIS.


BIS reveals its hand

September 28th, 2011 by Sean Jones QC

BIS has published its Second Statement of New Regulation. It can be found here: (many thanks to Paul Callaghan at Taylor Wessing for the tip off). There are two points bound to catch the eye of Employment Lawyers. The first is a reinstatement of the two year qualifying period for unfair dismissal:

“To cut the regulatory burden facing British businesses the Government has …consulted on changes to employment law that will give business the confidence to take on staff. We are increasing the qualifying period for employees to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years and introducing fees for lodging employment tribunal cases to tackle vexatious claims.”

 The one year period was introduced because the longer period was found indirectly to discriminate against women. It seems likely that there is going to be some close statistical scrutiny to be done in the near future. Indeed, the excellent are already on the case:

Note, also the introduction of fees. This is supposed to “tackle vexatious claims”. One would need to know how much it was proposed to charge in order to assess the extent to which the fees will discourage commencement of claims but one can see an immediate difficulty with the rationale: the effect of a fee is to discourage claims from those who cannot afford the payment rather than specifically those who have unmeritorious claims. That means its greatest impact will be on the low-paid and recently dismissed; precisely those that the “informal” tribunal process was supposed to assist.

The second proposal of interest is:

 “[Consultation] on removing Equality Act requirements for businesses to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment of their staff by third parties. This is something that businesses have no direct control over and will save them £0.3 million.”

This is a puzzle. First, £300k seems a paltry saving to justify taking a step that will result in people being exposed unnecessarily to harassment in the course of their work. It’s the cost of an individual banker’s bonus spread across all employers in the country. Secondly, it is far from clear what BIS means by “this is something that businesses have no direct control over”. The point of the duty (EA 2010, s. 40(2)) is compel an employer to act where there is a sufficient degree of control. The duty is, in any event, set very low and only requires an employer to take such steps as are “reasonably practicable”.