Land Registry Discriminated Against Disabled Employees

Badly drafted employment conditions can have embarrassing consequences, as a government agency discovered when it was found to have discriminated against disabled workers whose bonuses were docked due to their absence on sick leave (Land Registry v Houghton and Others).

The Land Registry (LR) paid annual bonuses to its staff, but any employee who had received a formal warning in respect of sickness absence was ineligible. There was no dispute that the absences of the workers concerned were related to their disabilities. However, the policy was strictly enforced and they therefore received no bonuses.

The bonus scheme contained an anomaly in that, whereas managers enjoyed a discretion to make a payment to those who had been warned in respect of absences for conduct-related reasons, no such discretion existed in respect of sickness absence. Furthermore, no account was taken of any improvements in attendance since the warning was given. In those circumstances, an Employment Tribunal (ET) found that the workers had suffered unfavourable treatment due to their disability and ordered the LR to pay their bonuses.

In dismissing the LR's challenge to that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal acknowledged that the bonus scheme was designed to serve the legitimate aim of rewarding employees for good performance and attendance. However, there was no error of law in the ET's decision that docking the workers' bonuses could not be objectively justified. No explanation for the anomaly in the bonus scheme was forthcoming. Following on from that, it took no account of any improvement in performance post-warning, even though the legitimate aim of the scheme was to reward good performance and attendance. The treatment was, therefore, both discriminatory and disproportionate.

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