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Barlow v Borough of Broxbourne, High Court

5 February 2003
The issues

Stress at work – bullying at work – psychiatric injury.

The facts

The Claimant was employed by Broxbourne as a Senior Operations Manager. He had begun employment in 1964 for Broxbourne’s predecessor Authority, Cheshunt as a Gardener in the Park Section and had gradually worked his way up to the position he held. His track record was described by the Trial Judge as “an impressive one”. It was common ground that the responsibilities on the Claimant were demanding. The Claimant gave evidence that he was working long hours and was often required to work without extra pay at weekends and bank holidays. In late 1995, Mr R took over as Director of Services at a time when Broxbourne Services was losing £100,000.00 per year. Mr R had a commercial rather than Local Government background. His brief from the Chief Executive Officer was to ascertain if Broxbourne Services was financially viable. He gave evidence to the effect that the Claimant by March 1996 had not been performing to the required standard and that “the scope of his role within breadth and depth was probably too great”. Accordingly, the Claimant’s responsibilities were reduced – to the extent of about 30%.

The Bullying Allegations

The Claimant alleged he was bullied by Mr R, by Mr W the Chief Executive Officer, and by Dr L subsequently appointed Assistant Director of Services. The Claimant alleged that he worked in a “culture of abuse”. The Judge found that Messrs M and R were given occasionally to shout and swear at members of staff, sometimes in the presence of more junior employees. In particular, the Judge found that Mr R on at least 3 occasions used foul language to the Claimant, but that the incidents were not numerous and had to be seen in the context of what Mr R described as a catalogue of errors for which the Claimant was responsible. Other allegations that the Claimant made were either rejected by the Trial Judge or did not amount to victimisation or bullying. Of the 4 questions which the Trial Judge found himself bound to answer:-

(i) Whether the conduct complained of amounted to bullying or harassment in the ordinary use of those words – addressing the cumulative effect of the conduct rather than the individual incidents;

(ii) Whether the people involved in the victimisation of bullying knew or ought to have known that their conduct would cause the Claimant harm;

(iii) Whether they could, by the exercise of reasonable care, have taken steps which would have avoided that harm;

(iv) Whether their actions were so connected with their employment as to render the Defendant vicariously responsible for them – whilst the latter two were made out, the first two were not.

Stress Claim

Hatton -v- Sutherland followed. The medical evidence was clear to the effect that the Claimant developed a moderate depressive illness in August 1998, symptoms of anxiety and depression having first appeared in late 1997/early 1998. There was then a period of improvement followed by a relapse in Spring 1999. The Claimant was absent from work for 2 weeks in February 1998. The first reference to stress in the GP notes was on the 18th February 1998. This coincided with a Disciplinary Hearing due to take place on the 20th February. In the notes, there were references to stress and depression thereafter, but there were no references in the Claimant’s sick notes to these problems. On 2nd February 1998, the Claimant’s wife had gone to see Defendant’s Personnel Department because she said she was worried about his health. A manuscript note of a meeting recorded the wife mentioning that the GP had said that most of the Claimant’s health problems were stress related. Otherwise, the Claimant himself told no one that he could not cope with the job. There was nothing in the evidence on the Judge’s findings that did or should have put the Defendants on notice that actions taken by its officers might, or would cause psychiatric harm to the Claimant. If this was wrong and the Defendant had breached its duty of care to the Claimant in January/February 1998, the damage flowing from such breach appeared minimal.

The decision

If the Defendant’s Officers had been concerned about the performance of the Claimant, the way in which they went about dealing with the problem (a barrage of letters and memoranda and the conduct of Mr Robertson) did not appear likely to the Judge to be the best way of bringing about an improvement. However, that was not the relevant question. There was nothing that should have put the Defendant on notice. There were no overt warning signals. There were no complaints or intimations by the Claimant of the fact that he believed his health was suffering by reason of stress at work. Indeed, the Claimant accepted that he had been aware of the counselling service provided by the Defendant for its employees, but did not take advantage of it.

Claim dismissed.

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