Judge speaks of relief after winning landmark Supreme Court whistleblower case

A judge who says she was bullied and suffered a breakdown after raising concerns about Government cuts has won a landmark legal action to bring a whistleblowing claim against the Ministry of Justice.

After Supreme Court justices announced a unanimous decision in her favour on Wednesday, District Judge Claire Gilham spoke of her “great relief” after fighting for “seven long years”.

The judgment by the UK’s highest court means her whistleblowing claim, which had been blocked by earlier court rulings, can be aired at an employment tribunal.

Her lawyers described the latest ruling as a “great win” for her and said it would have “far-reaching consequences”.

The judge, who sat at Warrington County Court in Cheshire, says she was “treated detrimentally as a result of raising concerns about systemic failings in the court administration”.

She claims she was subjected to a number of detriments as a result of her complaints – including being “seriously bullied, ignored and undermined” by fellow judges and court staff, and being told that her workload and concerns were simply a “personal working style choice”.

After the ruling the judge, who was signed off work due to stress from the end of January 2013, but has recently returned, said: “Winning is a great relief after these seven long years.

“Ethically I always knew that my point was right: that judges should have human rights protections.

“You can’t have justice without independent and unafraid judges, and if judges can’t speak out to protect the court system, then justice suffers and the people caught up in the system suffer too.

“I look forward to my claims being heard in the employment tribunal.”

Her lawyer Emilie Cole, a partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “She has fought hard for many years to achieve recognition for whistleblowing protection.

“Widening the scope of whistleblowing protection is fundamentally in the public interest and benefits wider society.

“Non-contractual office holders are now capable of claiming legal protection for blowing the whistle… this is a massive step forward in equality law and will have wide implications for the greater good. Justice has finally prevailed.”

Supreme Court president Lady Hale and four other justices ruled that the judge, and other judicial office-holders, were entitled to claim the protection given to whistleblowers under the 1996 Employment Rights Act.

District Judge Claire Gilham at the Supreme Court
District Judge Claire Gilham at the Supreme Court (Victoria Jones/PA)

Lady Hale announced: “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.”

Allowing District Judge Gilham’s challenge against a Court of Appeal decision which went against her in 2017,  the justices remitted her case back to the employment tribunal “on the basis that the appellant is entitled to claim the protection given to whistleblowers under the Act”.

In February 2015, she presented claims to the employment tribunal of “public interest disclosure detriments” – whistleblowing – and disability discrimination.

The disclosures concerned what were said to be poor and unsafe working conditions and an excessive workload in the courts where she was based, affecting herself and other judges.

The MoJ contested the tribunal’s jurisdiction to entertain the whistleblowing claim because she was not a “worker” within the meaning of the 1996 Act.

The Supreme Court ruled that the failure to extend whistleblowing protections to judicial office-holders was a “violation” of District Judge Gilham’s right not to be discriminated against “in her enjoyment of the rights” under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court said she had been treated less favourably than others who make responsible public interest disclosures protected by the Employment Rights Act.

Lady Hale said: “There is no evidence that either the Government or Parliament addressed their minds to this difference in treatment, nor has any legitimate aim been put forward for it.”

She said the object of the protection “was to give workers the confidence to raise malpractice within their organisation rather than placing them in a position where they feel driven to raise concerns externally”.

She added: “It is just as important that members of the judiciary have that confidence. They are just as vulnerable to certain types of detriment as are others in the workplace.

“To give the judiciary such protection might be thought to enhance their independence by reducing the risk that they might be tempted to ‘go public’ with their concerns, because of the fear that there was no other avenue available to them, and thus unwillingly be drawn into what might be seen as a political debate.”

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