The Public Defender Service (PDS) has been ordered to pay £100,000 in compensation to an employee unfairly dismissed after suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to her work debriefing a murderer.
Wendy Lewis, who had worked for the PDS since 2001, was as an accredited police station representative. From 2010 to 2013, she was assigned to debrief a police informer who had been involved in terrorist activity.
She said she attended nearly 1,000 interviews with ‘client X’, dealing with 500 individual serious offences including numerous murders, attempted murders and conspiracy to murder.
The work was so sensitive that Ms Lewis had to sign the Official Secrets Act, meaning she could not discuss it with anyone.
Ms Lewis told the liability hearing back in 2018 that she had no support from the Ministry of Justice throughout the assignment, despite working in “extremely challenging conditions”.
She said she regularly worked 12 hours or more each day for consecutive two-week periods away from home and would be locked in a confined complex comprising of the cell where client X was housed and the interview room.
She said that, as a result of the work, she experienced psychiatric symptoms and was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD.
She spent much of the subsequent four years on sick leave before being dismissed in February 2017 on the grounds that there was no foreseeable return to her current or alternative role, and no reasonable adjustments that could be identified to aid a return to work.
The majority of Ms Lewis’s claims were dismissed. These related to whistleblowing, automatic unfair dismissal, victimisation and an unauthorised deduction from wages.
However, Ms Lewis’s complaint of ordinary unfair dismissal was upheld, and the tribunal found that it was an act of discrimination arising from disability.
The PDS’s refusal to allow one of her colleagues to act as representative for the period of a month was a failure to make a reasonable adjustment, as was its failure to allow her to work from home instead of dismissing her.
The remedy hearing was delayed until this year for a variety of reasons and the tribunal recorded that, despite the “significant passage of time” since the events that led to the claim, Ms Lewis remained “very unwell”.
“The claimant is not working and told the tribunal that she is not presently ready to do so. She describes having limited interaction with people including close family.
“She suffers with anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks and cannot take pleasure in pastimes such as reading or watching television as she used to.
“The claimant is anxious of crowded places and confined spaces and fearful of strangers.”
The tribunal said that, had it not dismissed her, the PDS would have been able to locate and offer Ms Lewis part-time project work, to be completed from home, that she would have been able to carry out despite her condition.
At the same time, her ill health would likely have remained such that, by November 2017, the PDS could have fairly dismissed her in the absence of discrimination.
The tribunal made a basic award by consent of £9,580, plus £40,800 for financial loss and loss of statutory rights plus interest, and £43,800 for injury to feelings and personal injury plus interest, totalling just under £100,000.
It rejected a claim for aggravated damages, saying Ms Lewis’s line managers attempted to support and assist her, and the manager who would not allow her a representative believed he was acting within policy, rather than out of malice.