Landmark ruling in Warrenpoint woman’s discrimination case

April 27, 2010

By Brónagh Murphy

A Warrenpoint woman’s nine year disability discrimination battle with her former employer came to a successful conclusion last week when the House of Lords ruled in her favour.

The case made legal history and led the House of Lords to clarify the UK’s Disability Law, the subsequent ruling of which has effectively lowered the legal threshold at which employers have a responsibility to disabled employees.  The ruling means more people with controlled, recurring conditions are covered by disability law.

Elizabeth Boyle suffers from nodules on her vocal chords.  In 2001 she took action against her former employer, SCA Packaging Ltd, where she was employed as a stock controller, when changes made to her working environment would have threatened her voice.

Her condition required surgery, speech therapy and a strict management regime to ensure the problems did not recur. This involved limiting the use of her voice, staggering telephone calls, avoiding dusty atmospheres, speaking quietly and reducing background noise.

At a time when Ms. Boyle was following her health management regime rigorously and was symptom free, her employer sought to remove a partition separating her office from a stock control room.  She believed that the increased noise levels would have a substantial adverse effect on her health.

In October 2001 she began proceedings under the Disability Discrimination Act alleging discrimination on grounds of her employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments for her disability.

In May 2002, after 33 years service, she was made redundant and, arising from this decision, she brought further proceedings alleging victimisation and unfair dismissal.

Her legal battle went as far as the Court of Appeal in Belfast before ending up in the House of Lords, then the UK’s highest court.

The Lords’ judgement, which upheld the Court of Appeal ruling, focused on circumstances where a worker’s medical condition is controlled or not current but could recur if the working environment changes.

Previously the law stated that an employer only had to make reasonable adjustments if the chance of recurrence was more probable than not.  This definition has now be altered so bosses need to take action if the return of the medical problem ‘could well happen’.

The Warrenpoint factory where Ms Boyle worked is now under new ownership and spokesman for the new owners – SAICA PACK – said they had no involvement in the case.