In Environment Agency v Rowan the EAT considered whether a failure by the employer to allow a trial period of home working was a breach of its duty to make reasonable adjustments.

Background

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) states that where a disabled employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage by a provision, criterion or practice or a physical feature, the employer is under a duty to take reasonable steps to rectify that disadvantage.

Ms Rowan worked part-time as a clerk at the Environment Agency. She suffered a back injury which, four years later, resulted in surgery followed by long-term sickness absence. After this her journey to work increased by 50 miles as she moved house. Ms Rowan requested to work from home but her request was refused by the Agency as it deemed this inappropriate.

Following its refusal, the Agency started a capability procedure in relation to Ms Rowan's performance and Ms Rowan resigned shortly afterwards bringing claims of constructive dismissal and disability discrimination. The Tribunal upheld her claim for constructive dismissal and held that the Agency had discriminated against her on the grounds of disability, principally because of its refusal to let her have a trial period of working from home.

The Agency successfully appealed on several grounds, including the tribunal's decision that a trial period itself cannot be a reasonable adjustment.

The EAT did not state that working from home would always amount to an adjustment but concluded that it had "considerable difficulty" in seeing how a trial period could in itself be a reasonable adjustment. It stated that a trial period should normally be used as a way of assessing if a future adjustment was viable rather than being seen as an adjustment in itself.

Impact on Employers

  • It would be wise for employers to allow a trial period, if appropriate, in order to establish if a proposed step is in fact a reasonable adjustment and reduce the risk of liability for disability discrimination for failing to do so.