In Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey the EAT has upheld the decision of an employment tribunal that a police officer, who was turned down for a transfer to the Norfolk Constabulary because her hearing loss was marginally below the medical standard for police recruitment, had suffered direct discrimination because of a perceived disability. The Constabulary’s reason for refusing the transfer was the concern that the claimant would end up on restricted duties. This indicated that it perceived her to have a progressive condition which, by virtue of paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to the Equality Act 2010, met the statutory definition of disability.
In 2011 C applied to the Wiltshire Constabulary to become a police constable. She attended a medical, at which it was discovered that she suffers from bilateral mild sensori-neural hearing loss with tinnitus. Although C’s hearing loss was marginally outside the range set down by the Home Office for police recruitment, the Wiltshire Constabulary arranged a practical functionality test which C duly passed before going on to work on front-line duties. In 2013 C applied to transfer to the Norfolk Constabulary. C attended a pre-employment health assessment, where the medical adviser noted that her hearing was ‘just outside the standards for recruitment strictly speaking’ but that she had undertaken an operational policing role with the Wiltshire Constabulary without any undue problems. He recommended that C undergo an ‘at work’ test, but this recommendation was not carried through by the Assistant Chief Inspector (ACI) who dealt with the application. Instead, the ACI declined C’s request to transfer on the basis that her hearing was below the acceptable and recognised standard, and that it would not be appropriate to step outside that standard given the risk of increasing the pool of officers on restricted duties.
C brought an employment tribunal claim for direct discrimination. It was not alleged that she actually had a disability; her case was that her hearing loss did not have, and was not likely to have, a substantial adverse effect on her ability to carry out day-to-day activities, including working activities. Instead, it was argued that she had been treated less favourably because she was perceived to have a disability, in the form of a progressive condition that could well develop to the point of having a substantial impact on her ability to carry out day-to-day activities. The tribunal considered that the only way to read the ACI’s comments about the risk of C ending up on restricted duties was that she perceived that C had a potential or actual disability which could lead to the Constabulary having to make adjustments to C’s role as a front-line police officer. Since this perception was the reason for refusing C’s transfer, the tribunal upheld the discrimination claim.
On appeal to the EAT, it was argued that the tribunal had erred both in respect of its finding that the ACI perceived C to be disabled and its finding that C had been treated less favourably because of that perception. On the former point, the EAT stressed that the question of whether a putative discriminator A perceives B to be disabled will not depend on whether A perceives B to be disabled as a matter of law. It will depend on whether A perceives B to have an impairment with the features which are set out in the legislation. Paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 to the EqA makes special provision in respect of progressive conditions. Where a person has a progressive condition that results in an impairment having an effect on his or her ability to carry out day-to-day activities, but the effect is not a substantial adverse effect, it will still be treated as such if it is likely that the condition will result in a substantial adverse effect in future. Although the ACI protested that she did not consider C disabled with the meaning of the EqA, her knowledge of the law was incomplete and did not include Paragraph 8 of Schedule 1. The reference to the risk of C being on restricted duties could only be read as the ACI perceiving that C had a progressive condition which could worsen. Thus, the tribunal had been entitled to find that she perceived her to be disabled.
Turning to whether the tribunal had been correct to find that there had been direct discrimination, the EAT accepted that a genuine difference in abilities will be a material difference between claimant and comparator. However, it saw no warrant for an employer’s flawed belief in a lack of ability to be a material difference. The tribunal was entitled to conclude that a person with the same abilities as C, whose condition the employer did not perceive to be likely to deteriorate so that he or she would require restricted duties, would not have been treated as C was. C had performed an active policing role in Wiltshire; she had been accepted at the interview stage; her rejection followed when the ACI ignored advice to rely on a practical assessment of C because, as the tribunal put it, she believed the C would become a liability to the force. The tribunal did not err in law in concluding that she had been subjected to direct discrimination.
Link to transcript: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2017/0260_16_1912.html