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Success in Workplace Bullying Claims Proves Elusive

United Kingdom
Written by
Lewis Silkin, widely recognised as the UK’s leading specialist employment law practice.
This article offers an overview of a UK High Court decision on workplace bullying

Under UK law there is no specific protection against workplace bullying and therefore employees wishing to make that allegation must try to frame their claim to fit available mechanisms such as:

  • resigning and claiming the employer’s conduct was so bad that it amounted to a dismissal (constructive dismissal);
  • claiming the bullying is discriminatory harassment (but this is only possible if it is on a statutorily protected ground); or
  • (if very serious) alleging criminal harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Constructive dismissal is the easiest of these but the employee has to resign before a claim can be brought and there is a cap on the available damages.  If an employee does not wish to leave employment, and the perpetrator’s behaviour is not discriminatory, the recent High Court case of Dowson and others v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police illustrates how difficult it is for a claim to succeed.

Nine claimants (all in the police force) brought a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act that they had been harassed by the Detective Chief Inspector leading their team.  The allegations were about aggressive and undermining behaviour, inappropriate and sometimes unlawful policing techniques, and bullying.

The Chief Constable of Northumbria Police successfully had three of the claims dismissed on the grounds that one or more of the following issues arose:

  • the harassment claim was based on a single incident, whereas the definition of harassment required a course of conduct which involved conduct on at least two occasions;
  • the gravity of the misconduct was not sufficiently serious to sustain criminal liability; and/or
  • the course of conduct was not targeted at the claimant nor calculated to produce alarm and distress.

The High Court found that two random acts by two different officers, at different times, with no connection or link between them, did not amount to the required ‘course of conduct’.  Also, simply not getting on with other people in the working environment was insufficient to amount to harassment in the criminal context.

The Protection from Harassment Act was intended by Parliament to provide a remedy to deal with stalkers, and, given the criminal implications, it necessarily has a high threshold of proof.  It remains doubtful how far this Act really provides a useful remedy for workplace bullying; this case illustrates how hard it is to bring such a case successfully.

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