When ignorance can be a defence

Ignorance is rarely a good thing, but it does have compensations when defending claims for failure to make reasonable adjustments. Wilcox v Birmingham CAB was about a debt adviser who suffered from agoraphobia. She wanted a permanent transfer to a bureau nearer her home, as she had difficulties travelling by public transport.

Although there was reference to travel anxiety and even agoraphobia in correspondence, the claimant had been reluctant to divulge her medical history. So the tribunal thought that the employer was not in a position to know whether the claimant had a disability without a medical report, which it did not get until she had left their employment. The tribunal concluded that the employer’s defence to the duty to make reasonable adjustments had been made out because it did not know, and could not have been expected to know, that she was a disabled person at the relevant times.  The EAT has decided that even though it might have taken a different view, it was a conclusion that the tribunal had been entitled to reach.

Given that this case could have gone either way, it is always wise to obtain the full health picture about an employee where there is possibility that they may be a disabled person. But it does provide some re-assurance in cases where the employee is reluctant to disclose full details of their medical condition.

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