Terms of Disability Discrimination Act redefined

The House of Lords has redefined the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act as a result of a decade-long employment case, it has been reported.

Previously the law stated that an employer only had to make reasonable adjustments if the chance of recurrence of a condition was “more probable than not”. This definition has now been altered so employers must take action if the return of the medical problem “could well happen”. The ruling means that that more people with medical conditions that are controlled, but could recur, will be covered by the terms of the act.

Elizabeth Boyle, 58, from Northern Ireland has been awarded £125,000 in compensation in the case. She brought a claim under the Disability Discrimination Act on the grounds that her employer at the time, SCA Packaging, failed to make reasonable adjustments for her disability.

Mrs Boyle had vocal nodules for which she had undergone surgery and speech therapy. She was required to follow a strict regime of resting her voice and sipping water and reducing background noise so she could speak quietly.

At a time when Ms. Boyle was symptom-free due to her health management programme, her employer wanted to to remove a partition separating her office from a stock control room.

In October 2001,Mrs Boyle brought a claim of disability discrimination based initially on the company’s proposals to remove a partition and turn her working area into a larger, noisier area and subsequently based on the company’s decision to make her redundant in 2002.

The company has now settled the case with Ms Boyle, without admission of liability, after the Lords upheld a Court of Appeal decision.

The ruling could have implications for those with conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and a number of other health issues.

Rachel Dineley, Head of the diversity and discrimination unit at law firm Beachcroft LLP, comments:

“Although Elizabeth Boyle’s settlement of £125,000 has just been made public, the impact of the case for employers remains unchanged since the House of Lords’ judgement last year. When an employee’s medical condition is controlled by treatment or medication, or otherwise prone to fluctuate, employers need to ensure they carefully consider whether they are making reasonable adjustments wherever possible. Otherwise they will be in serious danger of falling foul of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), as interpreted by the House of Lords.

“The significance of the case is that in assessing whether an individual has a disability, whether an illness is ‘likely’ to last 12 or more months or ‘ likely’ to recur is to be judged by asking whether this ‘could well happen’, rather than whether it is ‘more probable than not’. This can make a significant difference and give employees a stronger case for bringing proceedings against their employer.

“With the Equality Act coming into force in October, employers will need to review their approach to disability issues in any event, as the revisions to this area of the law will widen the protection for the disabled and the prospective liability of employers who take too narrow an approach to these issues.”