Good news for whistleblowers - Court of Appeal provides wide definition of public interest in whistleblowing legislation

10th July 2017

The Court of Appeal has for the first time considered the new ‘public interest’ element of the whistleblowing law, the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA). Public Concern at Work intervened in Chesterton Global Ltd vs Nurmohamed held at the Royal Courts of Justice on 8 June 2017. Judgment was handed down today (10 July 2017.)

In a judgment that is good news for whistleblowers, the Court of Appeal has found in favour of the employee providing a wide interpretation of what the new statutory test means in the whistleblowing legislation.

Mr Nurmohamed was a senior manager working for Chesterton Global, a large firm of estate agents. He raised concerns that the company’s accounts were being deliberately manipulated by senior management to justify decisions around pay, to his detriment as well as to the detriment of more than 100 other office managers. Mr Nurmohamed was dismissed by Chesterton and brought a claim for unfair dismissal for having made a protected disclosure.

In June 2013, the whistleblowing law was changed to close a legal loophole whereby individuals were able to claim protection under PIDA for raising a concern about a breach of their own personal employment contract by claiming it was indeed a ‘breach of a legal obligation’. This was in a bid to overturn the ruling in Parkins v Sodexho which, it was said, had watered down the public interest purposes of the legislation. The new test requires any worker claiming protection under the Act to prove that they reasonably believed, both subjectively and objectively, that they were making a disclosure in the public interest. Parliament chose not to provide a statutory definition of the ‘public interest’ and instead left this to the Employment Tribunal and Appeal Courts to assess. This is the first case to reach the Court of Appeal in which the vexed issue of how to interpret the new test is considered.

The Court of Appeal has chosen to leave it to employment tribunals to assess the new test ‘as a matter of educated impression.’ This assessment must look at the character of the interest served by the the information disclosed rather than simply a question of numbers alone. Providing a number of factors that may assist with this assessment, where there is doubt about the public interest nature of the disclosure as follows:

• the numbers in the group whose interests the disclosure served
• the nature of the interests affected and the extent to which they are affected by the wrongdoing disclosed – a disclosure of wrongdoing directly affecting a very important interest is more likely to be in the public interest than a disclosure of trivial wrongdoing affecting the same number of people, and all the more so if the effect is marginal or indirect;
• the nature of the wrongdoing disclosed – disclosure of deliberate wrongdoing is more likely to be in the public interest than the disclosure of inadvertent wrongdoing affecting the same number of people;
• the identity of the alleged wrongdoer – the larger or more prominent the wrongdoer (in terms of the size of its relevant community, i.e. staff, suppliers and clients), the more obviously should a disclosure about its activities engage the public interest

The Court of Appeal stressed that this is about assessing the reasonable belief of the worker making the disclosure and that on the question of reasonableness there may be more than one reasonable view as to whether a particular disclosure was in the public interest. It also points out that a disclosure does not cease to qualify simply because the worker seeks to justify it after the event by reference to specific matters which the tribunal finds were not in his head at the time he made it. So there can be cases where the disclosure relates to a breach of the worker’s own contract of employment and yet still be in the public interest. Essentially this is a sensible finding for whistleblowers as although there is necessarily an amount of uncertainty in how a court may view a particular disclosure, it is an interpretation that broadly applies the statutory language. It is especially broad in the way in which a whistleblower’s belief around the disclosure is not set in aspic. Matters may emerge after the disclosure is made that mean his subjective belief is objectively justified – a useful broadening of the law where as is often the case, the whistleblower does not have the full picture.

Public Concern at Work Chief Executive Cathy James, OBE, who intervened on behalf of Mr M Nurmohamed said: ‘’We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has reached the right decision in this case. It is obviously desirable that the law protects workers who responsibly raise wrongdoing, rather than trips them up with technicalities or leaves them exposed to retaliation or uncertainty as to whether they are protected.

‘’When PIDA was being debated in Parliament Lord Borrie said ‘The purpose of this Bill is to give a clear signal to people in places of work up and down the country that if they suspect wrongdoing, the law will stand by them provided they raise the matter in a responsible and reasonable way. Today’s verdict is good news for workers across the UK who will hopefully now not feel deterred from raising a concern.''

Read our joint press release with C M Murray