Springhouse Solicitors

Whistle blowing: new case on meaning of “public interest”

Whistle blowing claims can now only be brought if the disclosure being relied on was made in the public interest. This has given rise to much debate as to what the meaning of public interest is.

We report on the latest decision.

Background

In the case of Underwood v. Wincanton Plc, the claimant, a driver, brought a claim for automatically unfair dismissal or detriment for having made a whistle blowing disclosure about the allocation of overtime. He also suggested that he may have been treated differently because he had been scrupulous about vehicle safety, but no disclosure would have been made about this.

Mr Underwood’s claim was initially struck out by the Employment Tribunal who said that the complaints about overtime could not possibly satisfy the public interest test. This was because it only affected employees of Wincanton, and not the public at large.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal did not agree, and overturned the Tribunal’s decision. They were concerned that there were potential health and safety allegations, and did not agree with the Employment Tribunal’s definition of “public”.

Firstly, relying on a previous case, the EAT said that what was important was the claimant’s belief that the disclosure was in the public interest. The Appeal Tribunal also disagreed with the Tribunal’s interpretation of the meaning of the word “public”, holding that the term could refer to a subset of the general public, and even a subset comprising just the employees of a company.

Implications

The definition of public interest, if it can apply even to the employees of a particular company, is very broad indeed, and employees should not have much problem in overcoming this hurdle, particularly as it is only their reasonable belief that is necessary. The ‘public interest’ test might not be such a help to employers after all.