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Heath v. Metropolitan Police Commissioner


Court of Appeal

Facts : The employee, who was employed by the defendant as a civilian police station reception officer, made a complaint to an employment tribunal of sex discrimination based on alleged sexual assaults on her by a police inspector at the station. The hearing of her complaint was stayed pending the outcome of an internal police disciplinary hearing into the allegations, which was convened pursuant to the Police (Discipline) Regulations 1985. The employee subsequently made a second complaint to an employment tribunal, complaining that the members of the board, in their conduct of the disciplinary hearing, had sexually discriminated against her. History of Proceedings: The employment tribunal determined as a preliminary issue that the disciplinary hearing was a judicial proceeding in respect of which the members of the board and the commissioner had an absolute immunity in respect of complaints of sex discrimination, and that it therefore had no jurisdiction to hear the employee’s complaint. The employee’s appeal was dismissed by the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and she appealed against that decision. The Is sues: The central issue on the appeal was whether the rule of absolute immunity from suit which attached to judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings excluded complaints about unlawful discriminatory conduct in the course of such proceedings to other judicial bodies, including employment tribunals. The employee submitted, inter alia, that the absolute immunity rule attached only to defamatory statements, and that the application of the rule to her claim violated her rights under arts 6, 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights and was contrary to the purpose of the Equal Treatment Directive.

Held: The appeal would be dismissed. (1) There was no basis for the proposition that the absolute immunity rule attached only to defamatory statements. It attached to anything said or done by anybody in the course of judicial proceedings, whatever the nature of the claim made in respect of such behaviour or statement, except for suits for malicious prosecution and prosecution for perjury and proceedings for contempt of court. That was because the rule was there, not to protect the person whose conduct in court might prompt such a claim, but to protect the integrity of the judicial process and hence the public interest. (2) The employment tribunal and the appeal tribunal had not only been entitled, but had been well justified, in finding that the board, in its consideration of the employee’s allegations against the inspector, was a body acting judicially. The appeal tribunal had rightly said that the essential features of the disciplinary hearing rendered it closely analogous to a judicial proceeding before a court of justice. (3) The application of the absolute immunity rule to the employee’s claim did not violate her rights under arts 6, 8 or 14 of the Convention; nor was it contrary to the purpose of the Equal Treatment Directive. The purpose of the absolute immunity rule was legitimate and was necessary and proportionate in the public interest for the protection of the integrity of the judicial system. Comment : This decision, which is not being appealed, is significant primarily for establishing that the rule of “judicial immunity” applies just as much to claims of statutory discrimination as to other causes of action such as defamation. The decision also reaffirms that the scope of the rule extends to bodies who are performing, pursuant to law – in this case statute – , a “quasi-judicial” role. Such bodies are not at all rare and thus the relevance of this decision is not confined to police disciplinary cases. Finally, the decision considers and rejects the argument that the Human Rights Act has had the effect of reducing the scope of the rule of “judicial immunity”, particularly in cases where it might be argued that the application of the rule would prevent a claimant/application from his/her right to a fair trial. The Court of Appeal were unanimous in holding that application of the rule in sort of circumstances established by the common law over the previous century or so was a legitimate, necessary and proportionate restriction on the qualified right to a fair trial.

[2005] ICR 329;[2005] IRLR 270

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