Perceived disability discrimination

16 February 2018

We look at the disability discrimination case of Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey.

As an employer you must be careful not to discriminate against someone because they have a disability. However, what about someone who has a medical condition which isn’t severe enough to amount to a disability under the law? Well, they can still be protected from disability discrimination where the discriminator perceives them as having a disability. This has been confirmed in the case of Chief Constable of Norfolk v Coffey. 

Ms Coffey was a police officer in Wiltshire police force. She had some hearing loss, but this was not bad enough for her to be classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010. Her hearing loss was minimal: just below the recruitment standards for the police force. However, she was accepted to the Wiltshire force after passing a practical hearing test.  

Ms Coffey later applied for a transfer to the Norfolk police force. She underwent a hearing test which showed that she had the same level of hearing loss as previously identified – i.e. slightly below the national standard. Norfolk rejected her application on the basis that she did not meet the national standard, without doing any practical test at work (even though that was recommended by occupational health). They told the tribunal that this was due to cost and resourcing pressure, as they could not justify appointing someone who fell outside the national standards and who, therefore, might not be fully operational.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided that this decision amounted to disability discrimination. It was based on a perception that Ms Coffey had a condition that could progress to the extent that she would need to be placed on restricted duties. They had therefore perceived that she had a disability in the sense of a progressive condition. The judge said that there would be a gap in equality law if an employer could dismiss someone before they became disabled to avoid the duty to make reasonable adjustments. 

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