Is there a point, you wonder, when discrimination law becomes too much of a good thing?
Sitting with last night’s London Evening Standard Evening Standard – Home RSS feed, you find reports of Employment Tribunal discrimination proceedings on pages 3, 6 and 8, with a small trot off to the Employment Appeal Tribunal Judgments for Employment Appeal Tribunal on an unfair dismissal claim on page 19. These cases jostle for space with pieces of far greater import concerning electoral fraud, Greek bailouts and drought fears. OK, and also with Prince William’s dog Lupo (named after a small Volkswagen?) and a model wearing parts of an old typewriter for London Fashion Week, but the point is the same – are these little individual disputes really news? One relates to the advice allegedly given to a maternity returner to be a “stay-at-home mum”, and one to a finding that staff at the Metropolitan Police had harassed a colleague on race and sexual orientation grounds. The third possibly does have some news value, dealing with an employee’s claim that as God had told her to take a particular job, He would make “bad things” happen if the employer then rostered her to work on a Sunday. Whether a few days in the Employment Tribunal in Croydon is everyone’s idea of divine retribution is a separate question (it might be – have you ever tried finding a decent lunch near the Tribunal there?), but the judgement will probably be a fun read if you like that sort of thing.
In the end, these items are not in the news because they change the world or make the reader better or richer in any way. No one will know or care about the outcome except for the tiny number of individuals involved. It may not even be reported. Nonetheless, the reporting of the allegations can be extremely distressing for the parties concerned who find themselves convicted in the Court of Public Opinion even if the Employment Tribunal rejects the allegations entirely. “Big Employer Behaves Correctly Shock” will never make the headlines.
Even though it is true that today’s newspaper wraps tomorrow’s chips, there must surely be an argument that all the parties to something as personal and hurtful as a discrimination claim (whether genuine victim or wrongly-accused perpetrator) should have the right to contest it on the merits away from the public eye so that they are not pilloried in the local press even before the judgement. At present an Employment Tribunal can bar reporting of cases involving sexual misconduct in particular, but for a manager wrongly accused of unlawful racial or sexual harassment or victimisation, the embarrassment must be little less. It is not hard to imagine that careers could be ended on the “no smoke without fire” principle, even though the Employment Tribunal might “acquit”. There must be a better way to procure that justice can be done to both employer and employee than fighting it out in front of a media more interested in the salacious or the story-worthy than in the issue of who acted unlawfully and who did not.