A district judge who says she was bullied, victimised and suffered a breakdown after raising concerns about the dangers of government cuts to legal services has won a landmark London whistleblowing case at the highest court in the land.
The UK Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that judge Claire Gilham should be allowed to take her case to an employment tribunal because excluding her from whistleblowing protection rules would breach her human rights.
The ruling extends whistleblowing protections – under which people are protected by law against unfair treatment or losing their job if they lift the lid on suspected wrongdoing that is in the public interest – to the judiciary for the first time.
After a seven-year litigation battle that she funded through crowdfunding, Gilham said she looked forward to her claims being heard in employment courts.
“You can’t have justice without independent and unafraid judges, and if judges can’t speak out to protect the court system, then justice suffers and the people caught up in the system suffer too,” she said in a statement.
Gilham complained in 2010 that her local courts had been hit by major cost-cutting reforms that led to a lack of appropriate and secure court room facilities, administrative failures and severely increased workloads.
Gilham, who first raised concerns to the local leadership judges and senior courts and tribunal managers before making a formal grievance, argued that her complaints were whistleblowing disclosures because they were likely to lead to miscarriages of justice and endanger the health and safety of individuals.
The judge said that after making her complaints, she was seriously bullied, ignored and undermined by fellow judges and court staff and told that her workload and other worries were a “personal working style choice”, the Supreme Court said.
Gilham suffered a nervous breakdown due to stress and anxiety and was signed off work at the end of January 2013, after which she was forced into an ill health retirement process, she said. She has since returned to work.
However, her whistleblowing claim failed at an employment tribunal in 2015 and at appeal. Lower courts argued that she was not a worker, but a non-contractual office holder and, as such, not entitled to whistleblowing safeguards under the 1996 Employment Rights Act.
The Supreme Court judgment was dubbed “a massive step forward in equality law” by Emilie Cole, her lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, who said that widening the scope of whistleblowing protection was fundamentally in the public interest — and benefits wider society.
“Justice has finally prevailed,” she said.