Human Rights Stories No.7: changing the law for disabled veterans

14th Jun 2022

A former Naval rating who suffered terrible sexual harassment which led to her medical discharge from the Royal Navy explains how she used the Human Rights Act to stop the Ministry of Defence discriminating against disabled veterans.

‘The Human Rights Act allowed me to change the law not just for myself but for other disabled veterans.’

My four years in the Royal Navy were marked by the most horrid sexual harassment from two senior officers as well as a wider culture of bullying. The behaviour included a senior officer barging into my cabin, drunk, frightening and propositioning me; and another senior officer engaging in borderline stalking behaviour which was exhausting, persistent and frightening.  I received little to no help in challenging these behaviours and, soon enough, my chain of command started seeing me as the problem, subjecting me to unfair discipline, ostracising me and making my life a misery. After trying to report my problems formally as a ‘service complaint’, I was diagnosed with mental health issues (that I had not had when I joined the Navy and which were caused by my horrid experiences) and I was eventually medically discharged from the services.

My complaint, made in December 2016, was rejected in its entirety after three long stressful years.

I brought a legal case arguing that the Navy should not have handled my complaint the way it did – and in particular that, because of my mental health issues (that amounted to a disability), they should have made a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to deal with it within a reasonable period of time, not dragging it out for years. The Navy tried to throw my case out. They said that they did not have to apply the laws that are there to protect disabled people, because they were exempt from that part of the Equality Act. They argued that, in order to preserve the combat effectiveness of the armed forces, they were allowed to discriminate against disabled people. I argued that, while that argument might have some relevance when dealing with serving people, it had no relevance to people that had left the services. They would never be required to serve in combat.

The Tribunal agreed with me and ruled that the Human Rights Act required that the part of the Equality Act relied upon by the MoD should be interpreted so that it only applied to people that are still serving, not veterans. The ruling has important implications for anyone that has left the armed forces with a disability, and who continues to have to deal with the MoD.

As for my complaint, I appealed the awful decision and my appeal was upheld in its entirety. The Navy finally – after almost 5 years – accepted that I had suffered totally unacceptable sexual harassment over a long time, had been badly let down by my chain of command and that the whole episode was a source of great shame to the Navy.  They apologised to me and, finally, accepted what I had been saying all along.

The Human Rights Act allowed me to challenge the MoD’s insistence that it owed no duty towards disabled people, changing the law not just for myself but for other disabled veterans. But for the Human Rights Act, the MoD would be able to continue to discriminate against disabled veterans with impunity.

This case featured in an article for Glamour magazine on 29 April 2022

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