Identifying public interest disclosure in private disputes
Dobbie v Paula Felton t/a Feltons Solicitors
If a worker can establish that they have made a public interest disclosure they will have statutory protection in the event that they are subject to any detriment as a result. In Dobbie v Paula Felton t/a Feltons Solicitors it was highlighted that this may apply even where the disclosures had been made primarily to advance their own interests. Their motivation does not exclude the possibility that they have a genuine and reasonable belief the disclosure is in the public interest.
It was claimed that the employee suffered a detriment for making a protected disclosure
Mr Dobbie had asked for increased fees under a consultancy agreement once he had qualified as a solicitor. In support of this, he referred to bills for a certain client which he said should have been allocated to him but had been wrongly allocated to other more expensive fee earners. When his contract was terminated he claimed that he had suffered a detriment for making a protected disclosure about a client being potentially overcharged. It was denied that this was a protected disclosure.
The employee's communication may qualify for protection
It was held on appeal that Mr Dobbie’s communication may qualify for protection. Whilst the allegation concerned only one client the disclosure may still be protected on the grounds it represented a "section of the public". If Mr Dobbie held a genuine and reasonable belief it was in the public interest protection could apply even if he had been motivated to make the disclosure for other reasons. The claim will have to be considered again taking these factors into account.
Key takeaway point
The decision is a useful reminder that employers should always be alert to the possibility that a complaint could qualify for protection as a public interest disclosure even if it is raised in a different context for other reasons. Once it is established that a public interest disclosure had been made the key question will be whether it had an influence on the employer’s decision. It need not be the main reason for a detriment claim to be successful.
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