Discrimination takes many forms, from gender or age to well-intentioned or just downright malicious. Here we examine some of the most serious and high profile cases in the UK.
However, no matter what guise it adopts, discriminatory behaviour is never anything but harmful, which is why more and more people are beginning to take a stand against it and are challenging employers and entire institutions in court or the employment tribunal.
Of the many discrimination cases appearing before judges and investigators in the UK, some truly stand out for their severity or uniqueness. We take a look at just how varied cases of discrimination can be.
Our dirty dozen of the worst UK discrimination cases
- When age is not just a number, and neither is a hefty fine
An 89-year-old NHS secretary, Eileen Jolly, became the oldest person in the UK to win an age discrimination claim. Her superiors at Reading’s Royal Berkshire Hospital fired her, claiming that she was stuck in her “old secretarial ways” and that she had demonstrated a “catastrophic failure in performance”.
In a nutshell, Eileen was fired for being unable to use a modern computer. However, the employment tribunal found that “there was evidence of the claimant’s training having been inadequate, incomplete and ‘on the job’ training was ad hoc and not directed”. While Eileen never got her job back, she did end up £200,000 richer!
- Discrimination infiltrates the Ministry of Defence
Hani Gue and Nkululeko Zulu, two former British paratroopers, won a claim against the Ministry of Defence for the years of racial discrimination they endured while serving with 3rd Battalion (3 Para) at Colchester. Among the many offences carried out against them, there is a particularly nasty one which stands out – racist graffiti was drawn over photos of the two men attached to Gue’s door, which included a Hitler-style moustache, a swastika, and a vile racist comment.
The tribunal ruled that the “act was so unpleasant that it can only have been done with the purpose of violating the claimants' dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for them". It also pointed out that there is a significantly disproportionate number of complaints of racial or sexual discrimination stemming from the MoD, an issue which the ministry promised to put an end to.
- BNP Paribas' #MeToo moment
A female broker won her sexual discrimination case against BNP Paribas. Stacey Macken told the tribunal that her mostly-male colleagues routinely subjected her to humiliating and sexist behaviour, such as leaving a witch’s hat on her desk. She also said that her boss often answered with “Not now, Stacey” when asked a question.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Macken claimed that her performance reviews were frequently carried out in a way that made light of her contributions. Unsurprisingly, this meant that she often missed out on bonuses that were readily dished out to her male colleagues, and the tribunal ruled that they couldn’t find any evidence to the contrary.
- Police force has deaf ears in relation to hearing tests
In one of the more unusual cases on this list, a policewoman who is not disabled has won a claim against the police force for direct disability discrimination. Upon joining the force, Lisa Coffey was given a standard medical examination which revealed that she had suffered an amount of hearing loss. However, since she was able to pass the force’s practical hearing test, she was permitted to work without requiring any adjustments.
Two years after she started working as a constable, Coffey applied for a transfer to another police force and was once again required to undergo a medical test. The results of this test were identical to the first; however her application was refused by the Acting Chief Inspector on the grounds that her hearing loss was likely to deteriorate in the future. This perception was found by the employment tribunal to be direct disability discrimination who awarded Coffey £26,616.05 in compensation.
- An important lesson for teacher's employer
Gary Day-Davies, a teacher diagnosed with bipolar disorder won a case against United Learning Trust for their discriminatory treatment. After initially being suspended for being unfit to work, Day-Davies took appropriate measures to enable a speedy recovery. However, once he managed to obtain proof from his GP and a psychologist that he was fit to work once more, this evidence was rejected by the trust and his suspension upheld.
While Manchester’s employment tribunal ruled that the trust was right to initially suspend Day-Davies, rejecting solid recommendations from health professionals for no logical reason was not. In the end, the tribunal ruled that this was little more than a classic case of disability discrimination.
- Lost in translation
A couple were awarded £2,500 in compensation after they suffered racial discrimination at the hands of a car sales company. Kin Hung Wong, a man of Chinese descent, and his wife, a Hong Kong national, visited John Mulholland Motors to buy a new car. Wong conducted all negotiations with staff in English, his first language. However, when explaining certain aspects of the sale to his wife, he switched to Cantonese, her mother tongue.
Regrettably, this was something that didn’t go down too well with the staff present who kept asking them to switch to English “because we are in the UK”, despite Wong explaining that his wife can’t speak it well enough to engage in a proper conversation. Wong said that they were treated aggressively and rudely and weren’t even offered a handshake once the sale was complete. The judge ruled that John Mulholland Motors’s staff had "created a degrading and humiliating environment", which is why he ultimately ruled in the couple’s favour.
- Home Office worries about 'external pressure' lead to internal consequences
In a what can only be described as a devastating let-down, British-born Vitesh Patel was fired from his dream job a mere two hours after being hired! After seven years rising through the Home Office ranks, Patel applied to be an immigration liaison officer in New Delhi. He aced the interview and an email confirming the post followed shortly after.
Unfortunately, he soon received another email which effectively fired him, since his family connections in India presented "a risk that the employee may come under significant and unwelcome external pressure - in addition to the obvious conflict of interest risks." The employment tribunal found that Patel’s unfair dismissal was racially discriminatory since his ethnic origin was used as grounds to deny him an opportunity he deserved.
- Fit to carry a child, but not carry out her job
A pregnant policewoman won a sex discrimination case against Devon and Cornwall Police after she was forced to move from the front line to a desk-bound position. Once she had told her superiors about her pregnancy, PC Natalie Town was given no choice but to move to the Crime Management Hub, which they believed was “safe and suitable for a pregnant woman”, despite receiving advice that she was fit to carry out her regular role.
PC Town did not take the change well at all and felt it would permanently harm her career. As a result, she ended up developing anxiety, depression, and migraine headaches, which then led to a lengthy absence from work. The employment tribunal ruled that PC Town was a victim of indirect sex discrimination as “pregnant officers, and therefore women were at a particular disadvantage in the form of susceptibility to an enforced transfer from an operational role to a non-operational role”.
- Being unable to read, write or tell the time doesn't make you dishonest
Meseret Kumulchew, a dyslexic woman, beat Starbucks in a disability discrimination case after being wrongly accused of falsifying documents. The accusation was made after she mistakenly entered incorrect information on certain documents, due to her condition making it hard for her to read, write or tell the time.
Quite understandably, Kumulchew took the wild accusations quite badly, telling the BBC, “I nearly ended my life. But I had to think of my kids. I know I'm not a fraud. I just made a mistake.” The employment tribunal uncovered that the coffee shop had not made any reasonable adjustments for dyslexic workers, thereby discriminating against Kumulchew because of her condition.
- Turning a frown into a smile...
In 2016, an Orthodox Jewish nursery fired Zelda De Groen from her job as a teacher. The reason for her dismissal was that people found out she was living with her boyfriend without being married, something generally frowned upon by the Orthodox Jewish community. After the discovery was made, the school asked De Groen to tell parents that she had changed living arrangements, and was then fired after she refused.
She took her case to the employment tribunal in 2017, where it was found that she had suffered from both sex discrimination and religious discrimination. However, the nursery immediately appealed, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal later concluded that only the sex discrimination verdict applied. The nursery was cleared of the religious discrimination charge after the judge, Mr Justice Swift stated that employers are allowed to act to the detriment of an employee based on the employer’s beliefs but not on the worker’s.
- Pink or Punk?
Another particularly odd case on this list involves a man who successfully sued a brewery for refusing to serve him a drink at a discounted price. Ironically, Cardiff’s Brewdog had relabelled some of their ‘Punk IPA’ bottles as ‘Pink IPA’ to raise awareness about the gender pay gap, also selling them a pound cheaper than the standard drink. However, to be able to buy one, you had to be a woman, which is where the root of this case lies.
When 27-year-old Thomas Bower, who is male, tried to purchase a £4 bottle of Pink IPA, he was refused due to his gender. Oddly enough, he was then allowed to purchase it after lying to the barman that he identified as female. District Judge Phillips ruled in Bower’s favour, finding the brewery guilty of sexual discrimination, adding that Bower must have felt “humiliated”, which is why he was awarded £1,000 in compensation.
- The cake case that takes the biscuit
Possibly the most high-profile discrimination case in UK history involves a ‘gay marriage cake’. The trouble all started when Ashers Baking Company, a bakery with evangelical Christian owners, refused to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage message on it due to their religious beliefs. The case was heard by a number of different courts, with judges initially siding against the bakery, deeming their refusal to be discriminatory.
However, in 2018 the supreme court went against previously made judgements, instead ruling that the bakery had every right to refuse baking a cake which goes against their own beliefs, thereby clearing Ashers of all discrimination charges. Gareth Lee, the customer who originally ordered the cake, now says that he will take the case to the European Court.
Want to learn more about Equality & Compliance?
If you'd like to stay up to date with equality best practices, industry insights and key trends across regulatory compliance, digital learning, EdTech and RegTech news subscribe to Skillcast Compliance Bulletin.
To help you navigate the compliance landscape we have collated searchable glossaries of key terms and definitions across complex topics including GDPR, Equality, Financial Crime and SMCR. We also regularly report key learnings from recent discrimination cases.
You can follow our ongoing YouGov research into compliance issues, attitudes and risk perceptions in the UK workplace through our Compliance Insights blogs.
And if you're looking for a compliance training solution, why not visit our Compliance Essentials Course Library.
Last but not least, we have 60+ free compliance training aids, including assessments, best practice guides, checklists, desk-aids, eBooks, games, handouts, posters, training presentations and even e-learning modules!
If you've any questions or concerns about compliance or e-learning, please get in touch.
We are happy to help!