Ministry of Defence v Wallis and Grocott

Employees who work abroad and bring claims in a British tribunal have to show some sort of connection with the UK in order to succeed. In Ministry of Defence v Wallis and Grocott, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) said that wives of service personnel working in Europe could satisfy the “special connection” requirement for unfair dismissal; and could also rely on the directly-effective rights under the Equal Treatment Directive to bring a claim of sex discrimination.

Basic facts

Mrs Wallis and Mrs Grocott were wives of serving members of the British forces at NATO bases in Belgium and the Netherlands. Both worked at schools attached to NATO but were dismissed when their husbands left the armed forces (although both men continued to work for NATO as civilians).

Mrs Wallis claimed unfair dismissal, sex discrimination and breach of contract; while Mrs Grocott brought a claim for unfair dismissal and breach of contract.

The Ministry of Defence accepted that the tribunal had jurisdiction to hear the breach of contract claims but not the unfair dismissal and sex discrimination claims because the women worked abroad.

Tribunal decision

However, the tribunal disagreed and found in favour of the two women.

The judge said that as both lived and worked in what was essentially an “international enclave” on English terms and conditions (rather than host state terms) and their employment was so closely connected with Britain that they were protected by the 1996 Employment Rights Act regarding unfair dismissal.

As for the sex discrimination claim, the judge said that the rights conferred by the Equal Treatment Directive were directly enforceable because they were clear enough not to need further elaboration by EC or domestic legislation.

EAT decision

And the EAT agreed. It said that, in relation to the unfair dismissal claim, the judge’s reasoning had been “unimpeachable”. There was no reason why the “special connection” to Britain (a requirement following the 2006 House of Lords case of Serco v Lawson) had to be some inherent feature of their work and the women could establish the connection through the “personal” feature that they qualified for employment because their husbands worked for Nato.

It was satisfied that parliament must have intended to include employment relationships of this kind “parasitic as they are on the employee spouse's status as a member of the armed forces posted abroad” within the scope of British employment law.

Although the tribunal did not seem to have jurisdiction to decide the claim under the Sex Discrimination Act (which only covers those working at establishments in Britain), the EAT said that Mrs Wallis had directly effective rights under the Equal Treatment Directive which trumped domestic legislation. Applying the case of Bleuse v MBT Transport Ltd, the appeal tribunal was satisfied that UK legislation had to be read in such a way to give effect to the directive.