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Effect of human Rights Act on unfair dismissal claim against private-sector employer

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The Court of Appeal has, this morning, handed down a rather academic decision dealing with the vexed question of whether tribunals must take account of the Human Rights Act 1998 (in this case, the right to respect for privacy) when deciding unfair dismissal claims brought against private sector employers. The case, X v Y, is well known because of the rather unusual facts. The EAT's decision is reported at [2003] IRLR 561.


Mr X worked with vulnerable children. On a Saturday in January 2001, he drove to a transport cafe, entered the toilet, met a man he did not know, and "they began to engage in sexual activity". A passing policeman arrested them.

Mr X accepted a caution, and his name was placed on the Sex Offenders register. His employers, who worked closely with the Probation Service, discovered this. After full hearings, they dismissed him on the grounds of (a) having committed a criminal offence; and (b) thereafter not having disclosed it. The tribunal found the dismissal was fair.

The Issue

The issue for the Court of Appeal was whether a tribunal is bound to have regard to the right to respect for privacy in private life, accorded by article 8 of the ECHR, when deciding whether a dismissal is fair or unfair.

The tricky point was that the employer was a private-sector employer, and the Human Rights Act only provides that public bodies must comply with the ECHR. Thus, the issue because, should the tribunal (as a public body) apply the ECHR in private-sector cases?

The EAT's Decision

The EAT (HHJ Peter Clark presiding) held that article 8 was not engaged, therefore the main issue did not need to be determined. He considered that an act of 'cottaging', committed in a public place and which attracted a criminal caution was a public matter not a private matter.

The Court of Appeal's Decision

The majority of the Court of Appeal (Mummery and Dyson LJJ) agreed with HHJ Peter Clark, holding that article 8 was not engaged on the facts of this case. In a compelling minority judgment, Buxton LJ doubted this (thinking that acts in a secluded room in private could properly be categorised as private in nature), but thought that the acceptance of the caution by Mr X subsequently removed the private aspect of it.

Mummery LJ went on to consider the alternative point: what should a tribunal do when faced with an argument that a private-sector employer must respect an individual's right to privacy. Buxton LJ agreed with this part of the judgment, but Dyson LJ did not comment on it.

Mummery LJ stated that there should be no difference in approach, whether the employer is private- or public-sector. He described the effect of the ECHR as "oblique", rather than horizontal (para. 59). He then set out eleven factors to be considered by tribunals when deciding the impact of ECHR rights on the fairness of a dismissal. However, he did not actually give an answer - instead he restated basic principles and said it was for employment tribunals to decide! So matters are no clearer.