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Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Court of Appeal, 20 December 2002

4 March 2003
The issues

(1) Sex discrimination
(2) Compensation
(3) The Employment Tribunal Act 1996, sections 21(1), 35(1), 37

The facts

In December 1995, Ms. Vento joined the West Yorkshire Police as a probationary constable. Her complaint was based upon sex discrimination. She stated that after her marriage had broken down in 1996, she had suffered a change in attitude towards her from her superiors, as they had shown an uncalled-for interest in her private life, bullied her and subjected her to sexual harassment. At the end of her probationary period she was dismissed. One of the main reasons given was that she gave a dishonest response to a superior officer.

The Employment Tribunal found for the Applicant. A hypothetical male probationer in the same position would have been offered a permanent post.

The decision on liability was upheld by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), and the matter was remitted to the tribunal for the assessment of compensation. It awarded £257,844, constituting of £165,829 for future loss of earnings, £65,000 for injury to feelings (including £15,000 by way of aggravated damages), £9,000 for personal injury, and £18,015 for interest. The award for loss of earnings was reached at on the basis that there was a 75% chance that the Applicant would have completed a full police career, even though she was divorced and had responsibility for three children. Statistical evidence was accepted that only 9% of female police officers who left the service between 1989 and 1999 had served for more than 18 years.

The award of £50,000 for injury to feelings reflected the Tribunal’s view that the Applicant had been subjected to bullying, which had contributed to clinical depression. She also had suffered the disappointment and shock of her dismissal, and the strain of the hearing itself, which had scrutinised her private life.

The £15,000 award for aggravated damages reflected the Tribunal’s feeling that the attitude of the Chief Constable and his officers was one of “institutional denial” and that they had acted in a “high-handed” manner.

The decision was appealed to the Employment Tribunal.

On appeal, both the awards for future loss of earnings and injury to feelings were criticised as excessive. The award for loss of earnings was set aside as it was held that there was no reason why the Tribunal should have departed from the evidence in such a radical way. The award for injury to feelings was reduced to £30,000 as the original award was outside that of the cited authorities. The Applicant then appealed against the reduction of the award for future loss of earnings. At the same time, the Chief Constable cross-appealed against the EAT’s failure to substitute a lower figure than £30,000 as compensation for injury to feelings, having regard to the undisturbed award of £9,000 for psychological injury.

The decision

The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and the cross-appeal. The sum for financial loss was restored at the level assessed by the Tribunal. The EAT’s award of £30,000 for injury to feelings was reduced to £23,000. Damages for psychiatric injury were left at £9,000.

Comments

The Court of Appeal identified three broad bands of compensation in an attempt to limit the size of awards for non-pecuniary loss.

(1) The top band of compensation, covering the most serious cases, should normally be between £15,000 and £25,000. The Court of Appeal has stated that only the most exceptional cases should awards of compensation for injury to feelings be considered in excess of £25,000.

(2) The middle band of between £5,000 and £15,000 is for serious cases, which do not merit an award in the highest band.

(3) Awards of between £500 and £5,000 are appropriate for less serious cases, such as where the act of discrimination is an isolated or one off occurrence.

Awards of less than £500 are to be avoided altogether, as there is a risk that they would be regarded as being so low as not to be a proper recognition of injury to feelings.

It is apparent from the decision that the Court of Appeal was made in light of some recent well-publicised awards. The decision in Virdi v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis was considered to be a source of “concern” (£100,000 was awarded for injury to feelings and £25,000 by way of aggravated damages). In reality though, cases like Virdi are very rare indeed, and point which is confirmed by the most recent survey of compensation awards. It shows that the highest award for injury to feelings (including aggravated damages) in a sex discrimination case was £40,000 and the median award was £2,500. For cases of race discrimination, the highest award was £17,500 and the median award was £3,000. In disability discrimination, the highest award was £24,000 and the median award was also £3,000. In all three jurisdictions, there were more awards for injury to feelings under £600 than there were over £20,000.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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