Sleeping Employment Judge Caused Unfairness in Museum Curator’s Case

Judges spend long hours listening to dense evidence and argument, and they would be superhuman if they did not occasionally nod off. As an employment case showed, however, the consequences of sleepy-headedness can be grave if it affects the fairness of proceedings.

The case concerned a senior curator, employed by a group of museums, who was made redundant after 33 years’ service. Her claims of wrongful and unfair dismissal, age and sex discrimination were subsequently rejected by an Employment Tribunal (ET). Four years later, she sought a position as assistant curator in response to an advert placed by the group, but her application was rejected on grounds that she was over-qualified for the relatively junior position.

After she launched a further complaint against the group, another ET accepted that her rejection for the post amounted to victimisation, contrary to the Equality Act 2010. That was on the basis that the earlier proceedings – which constituted protected acts – had influenced the decision to sift out her application.

In upholding the group’s challenge to that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) was in no doubt that, very unfortunately, the employment judge who presided over the ET hearing had twice fallen fully asleep whilst the woman was undergoing cross-examination. It was not a case of mere momentary inattention and the group’s legal representative had to deliberately make a noise more than once in order to alert the judge. In those circumstances, a fair-minded and informed observer would have detected a real possibility that the fairness of the hearing had been affected.

The EAT noted that it would have allowed the appeal in any event, in that the ET had failed to reach specific and clear conclusions in respect of the group’s plea that the woman’s over-qualification was the sole reason for her rejection. The EAT directed a rehearing of the woman’s claim and expressed a preliminary view that that should take place before a freshly constituted ET.