A district judge in the UK who who spoke out about the impact of legal aid cuts has been vindicated after a landmark ruling in the supreme court. Now classified as a ‘worker’, she is entitled to the same whistleblowing protections as any other worker.
After raising several matters with senior court staff about the lack of secure courtrooms, overburdened staff and widespread administrative failures, Claire Gilham, who sits as a district judge in Manchester, said that she was bullied, sent death threats and dealt with violent litigants in the courtroom after expressing her views. Gilham was told that her workload and concerns were nothing more than a ‘personal working style choice’.
Before this unanimous ruling, judges were considered to be officeholders not entitled to the safeguards under the Employment Rights Act which provide protection to whistleblowers who make disclosures in the public interest. Gilham’s whistleblowing case has secured the right for all judges to receive the standard employment protections provided to other workers.
The judgment was delivered by Lady Hale: ‘Subjecting a whistleblower to detriments such as bullying and victimisation would be an interference with her right to freedom of expression, protected by article 10 of the European convention on human rights. Thus, denying her those remedies would be discrimination against her in the enjoyment of her convention rights.’
As Lady Hale explained, Judge Gilham was appointed a district judge in 2006. ‘After 2010 there were major cost-cutting reforms affecting the courts in her area and cases in which she sat. She raised a number of concerns, in particular about the lack of appropriate and secure court room facilities, her severely increased workload and administrative failures.’
The Coalition government set out to cut the Ministry of Justice’s budget by 40% between 2010 and 2020. Gilham called winning ‘a great relief after these seven long years in which the rights of judges to speak out about conditions in the justice system have been denied’. ‘Ethically I always knew that my point was right: that judges should have human rights protections,’ she said. She added: ‘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.
Gilham’s lawyer, Emilie Cole, a partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell, noted the profound impact which this ruling would have for those in other professions considered to be officeholders including the clergy, trustees as well as company directors and secretaries.
The charity, Protect, also intervened in the case. Their head of advice and advocacy, Bob Matheson, welcomed the ruling: ‘Our most senior judiciary have firmly recognised the fundamental importance of whistleblowing rights for all of those in work and that the government must provide these rights in a consistent well-reasoned way, rather than through piecemeal reforms in response to scandals,’ he said..
Matheson said that his group was ‘struck by the court’s observation that the government doesn’t have a plausible reason why our judges were denied the same right to call out wrongdoing as other workers’. ‘For much too long the burden of bringing our whistleblowing legislation up to date with the rest of the world has been placed on whistleblowers like Judge Gilham,’ he said. ‘To expect so much from those who have already spoken up on our behalf is unconscionable.’
As she is now considered a ‘worker’, Gilham’s case will now be heard at an employment tribunal for the merits of her case to be assessed, in light of the supreme court ruling.