A judge who claims she was bullied for blowing the whistle on crumbling and violent courts has won a landmark ruling that she is entitled to employment rights.
District Judge Claire Gilham triumphed over the government yesterday in the UK’s highest court after a seven-year battle to have her claims that she was bullied and suffered a nervous breakdown aired at an employment tribunal.
The Supreme Court, led by its president, Baroness Hale of Richmond, unanimously found that Judge Gilham’s case can be heard at a tribunal, where the judge will argue that she suffered because she spoke out about unsafe courts and problems caused by cuts to legal aid.
The judge, who sat at Warrington county court in Cheshire, says that she was “treated detrimentally as a result of raising concerns about systemic failings in the court administration”.
However, lower courts — including the Court of Appeal in 2017 — had found in favour of the Ministry of Justice’s position that, as a member of the bench, Judge Gilham was legally an “office holder” and not a “worker”.
A ministry spokesman said this morning: “The government has accepted the court’s judgment and is considering how to implement it.”
Speaking outside the Supreme Court after the ruling Judge Gilham said that she was “delighted” with the judgment.
“Over time I have raised a number of very serious concerns relating to cuts to the court system and their impact,” she said, adding: “I have tried hard to raise those concerns and mitigate their effect internally with senior judges and others without success.”
She said that she had been “subjected to a number of detriments as a result of raising those concerns, including by bullying and undermining”.
She added that as a result she had been signed off sick and then put through the official retirement process before deciding to take legal action.
“I was surprised to discover that I was excluded from the protections afforded other whistleblowers,” Judge Gilham said.
“As the Supreme Court has now found, there was no justification for that exclusion, and the Supreme Court has now put that right.
“Judges are just as in need of protection when whistleblowing as others. The point of whistleblowing protection is to give confidence that it is safe to raise malpractice within any organisation.
“Organisations that cannot hear such warnings endanger the services they are tasked with providing.”
The case turned on the government’s position that judges were not afforded the legal protections given to whistleblowers under employment legislation because they are not classed as workers.
In February 2015 Judge Gilham launched a claim in the employment tribunal of “public interest disclosure detriments” — whistleblowing — and disability discrimination.
The disclosures involved her allegations of poor and unsafe working conditions, and an excessive workload in the courts where she was based, which she claimed affected her and other judges.
But the ministry argued that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction to consider the whistleblowing claim because the judge was not a “worker” within the meaning of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which says: “A worker has the right not to be subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by his employer, done on the ground that the worker has made a protected disclosure.”
But yesterday five Supreme Court justices ruled that the judge, and other judicial office-holders, were entitled to claim the protection given to whistleblowers under the act.
Allowing her challenge against the earlier appeal decision, the UK’s top judges ordered her case to be sent back to the employment tribunal “on the basis that the appellant is entitled to claim the protection given to whistleblowers under the act”.
“I can reach no other conclusion than that the Employment Rights Act should be read and given effect so as to extend its whistleblowing protection to the holders of judicial office,” Lady Hale said in the judgment.
Bob Matheson of Protect, a group that campaigns for whistleblower rights and intervened in the Supreme Court case, said the ruling meant that “our most senior judiciary have firmly recognised the fundamental importance of whistleblowing rights for all of those in work, and that the government must provide these rights in a consistent well-reasoned way, rather than through piecemeal reforms in response to scandals”.