Local Government Lawyer Home Page

Sharpe Edge Webpage Banner

Welcome to Sharpe Edge, Sharpe Pritchard’s local government legal hub on Local Government Lawyer.

Sharpe Edge features news, views and analysis from our team of specialist local government lawyers working at the heart of the latest legal developments. Sharpe Edge platform is also the only place where local government lawyers can get e-access to two law books by our Head of Local Government Rob Hann: The Guide to Local Authority Charging and Trading Powers (‘LACAT’) and The Guide to Local Authority Companies and Partnerships (‘LACAP’).



Slide background

Unconscious Bias, Discrimination and a Warning to Public Sector Employers

Icons HazardChristian Grierson and Julie Bann discuss two employment tribunal judgements, which provide a stark warning to public sector employers about unconscious bias and discrimination.

Two recent employment tribunal judgments provide a stark warning to public sector organisations to ensure they have sufficient processes and policies in place, to manage sensitive disciplinary proceedings.

Two well-known and highly regarded organisations have been found by an employment tribunal to have taken unlawful action. Both cases involved a careful examination as to whether unconscious bias had influenced decisions.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (“FCDO”) was found by an employment tribunal to have racially discriminated against a black senior civil servant. Then in a separate case, Exeter University was found to have unfairly dismissed an ‘inherently loud’ lecturer.

Together the cases show that employment tribunals are alive to less obvious forms of discrimination and that subtle differences in how an employee is treated can have substantial implications.

Ms Warner v FCDO

In this case, Ms Warner as a senior civil servant was posted to Nigeria. In her role she was responsible for an anti-corruption programme in Nigeria and oversaw certain grants. Ms Warner is black but her senior managers were overwhelmingly white.

Following a decision by Ms Warner to subject a grant to an organisation in Nigeria to closer monitoring, allegations were made by people connected to that organisation, that Ms Warner she had entered into a relationship with an individual from that organisation. The FCDO conducted an investigation into whether she had been in an intimate relationship with an employee of the organisation and if she had failed to follow standard procedures.

Ultimately, the disciplinary investigation concluded by issuing Ms Warner with a 12-month final written warning. After she appealed the outcome and race discrimination was not recognised, she decided to bring the claim to an employment tribunal.

The tribunal found that in the ‘difficult and finely-balanced case’, she had been the victim of unconscious bias by the all-white colleagues who had assessed and conducted the investigation into claims against her. Had the same allegations been made against a white comparator, they would not have been treated as unfavourably.

The tribunal was explicit in emphasising that the discrimination was unconscious, not conscious discrimination. There was no overt malice or discriminatory attitude toward the Ms Warner. However, the colleagues’ minds were closed, so that she was treated unfairly in the disciplinary process.

Dr Annette Plaut v Exeter University

In this case, a physics lecturer at Exeter University who was of eastern European Jewish heritage was dismissed. The University claimed she was dismissed because of two complaints about Dr Plaut, made by doctoral students which were serious enough to warrant dismissal. Whereas Dr Plaut claimed in the investigation there was a total focus on negativity, and not a balanced process which led to her dismissal.

In arguing she was subject to unconscious bias, Dr Plaut’s explained that her heritage meant that she was inherently loud, and her body language was demonstrative. Her conversational style was naturally argumentative. The University argued that she was perceived to shout at students and colleagues. None of this was to do with her being female or Jewish.

The tribunal found that she had been unfairly dismissed but the majority of the claims of race and discrimination were dismissed (some victimisation and harassment upheld). The Tribunal could not see any way that a fair procedure could have led to her being fairly dismissed. The University’s management had decided that Dr Plaut would not be tolerated further.

The tribunal was not convinced by Dr Plaut’s claims of discrimination as any unfavourable treatment because of her inherent ‘loud’ nature. There was no link between her expression of a racial characteristic and the treatment she received.

Exeter university does intend to appeal the judgment.


The cases came to different conclusions as to whether the employer had discriminated against the employee because of unconscious bias. However, both cases demonstrated a careful analysis of the specific facts and how subtle differences in treatment may stem from a protected characteristic.

Organisations must be proactive in preventing any form of discrimination influencing a disciplinary process. This extends not just to obvious discriminatory action but to more inconspicuous measures.

On the face of both cases, the disciplinary process appears fair and an effort to adopt the appropriate procedures by both organisations has taken place. However, as shown in the Warner case, unconscious bias can impair decisions with serious implications.

Public sector organisations are often highly aware of their obligations to prevent discrimination (particularly in light of the Public Sector Equality Duty). However, box-ticking exercises where staff attend training, read information and undertake risk assessments may not be enough.

The cases should serve as warning to public sector organisations, to take a step back and assess whether sufficient safeguards are in place to maintain the fairness of employment procedures and prevent unconscious bias influencing decisions.

Sharpe Pritchard has an experienced team of employment solicitors who regularly advises public sector clients on all manner of contentious and non-contentious employment law matters. Please contact Christian Grierson if you wish to discuss the implications of this article in more detail.

Christian Grierson is a Solicitor and Julie Bann is a Partner at Sharpe Pritchard LLP.

For further insight and resources on local government legal issues from Sharpe Pritchard, please visit the SharpeEdge page by clicking on the banner below.

sharpe edge 600x100

This article is for general awareness only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this page was first published. If you would like further advice and assistance in relation to any issue raised in this article, please contact us by telephone or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

LACAT BookFREE download!

A Guide to Local Authority Charging and Trading Powers

Written and edited by Sharpe Pritchard’s Head of Local Government, Rob Hann,

A Guide to Local Authority Charging and Trading Powers covers:

• Updated charging powers compendium          • Commercial trading options

• Teckal ‘public to public’                                    • Localism Act


LACAT BookAvailable to buy:

A Guide to Local Authority Companies and Partnerships

An invaluable, comprehensive toolkit for lawyers, law firms and others advising
on or participating in Local Authority Companies and Partnerships”

- Local Authority Chief Executive


  More Articles

Icons Hazard

Holiday entitlement and pay for atypical working arrangements: Harpur Trust v Brazel [2022] UKSC 21

Julie Bann and David Leach analyse a landmark Supreme Court ruling on holiday entitlement and pay for atypical working arrangements.
Icons House

UK Emission Trading Scheme to include waste incineration installations

Steve Gummer and Gonzalo Puertas take a look at the UK Emission Trading Scheme and new decisions on waste incineration.
Icons Document

Signet Trading Limited v First Property Group – First Award under the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Act 2022 Scheme

Joe Walker and James Nelson outline and analyse the first award under the Commercial Rent (Coronavirus) Act 2022 Scheme.
Icons Deal

Procurement reforms – implications for procurement challenges and remedies

Colin Ricciardello considers the implications for procurement challenges and remedies arising out of the Government's procurement reforms.
Icons House

Relationship between limitation act and scheme for construction contracts

David Owens and Natasha Barlow look at the implications of Hirst & Another v Dunbar & Others [2022] EWHC 41 (TCC)
Icons House

An Introduction to the Building Safety Act 2022

The Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA) received Royal Assent in April 2022. Deborah Down outlines the main provisions.
Icons Date

Tackling Teckal – does the new Procurement Bill adequately deal with the Teckal exemption?

Peter Collins and Sophie Pilcher take a look at whether the new Procurement Bill adequately deals with the Teckal exemption
Icons Hazard

Local authorities on track to more freedom to cut ties with Russian and Belarusian suppliers

Juli Lau and Gonzalo Puertas discuss the increased freedom for Local Authorities to cut ties with Russian and Belarusian suppliers.
Icons Hazard

Nitrogen Credits Commentary

Emily Knowles, Bernadette Hillman and Steve Gummer discuss the impact of nitrate on planning permission and development in the UK.
Icons House

Thurrock Council & Another v Adams & Ors [2022] EWHC 1324 (QB)

William Rose, Partner at Sharpe Pritchard LLP, has successfully acted for Thurrock Council and Essex County Council in obtaining a ‘first of its kind’ injunction against individuals connected with the protest group Just Stop Oil.
Icons Date

The Adjudication Part 3: The Response and Further Submissions 9 June 2022

David Owens and James Goldthorpe look at the responding party's response and further submissions during adjudication.
Icons House

A renewable future: focusing energy solutions at a local level

Natasha Barlow and Steve Gummer discuss the 'Energy Trilemma' and how it is playing out at a local level.
Icons Date

Procurement Bill – Initial impressions from the first draft

Juli Lau and Sophie Mcfie-Hyland outline their initial impressions from the first draft of the Procurement Bill.
Icons Hazard

Let’s paint the town green! Government plans for green homes

Laura Campbell discusses the change urgently needed in towns and cities to make the landscape greener.
Icons House

The Queen’s Speech in Brief

The number of Bills which affect public sector clients is greater than usual – and the government have got straight off the starting blocks by publishing some of them already.
Icons Hazard

Refurbishment and Retrofitting: In with the old, out with the new!

Sharpe Pritchard analyse the challenge of decarbonising the construction sector.
Icons House

NET ZERO – What obligations are there on the UK to achieve it?

Radhika Devesher takes a look at the legal duty to achieve net-zero placed upon the UK.
Icons House

Championing green goals through public buying

Juli Lau considers how public purchasing power can be used to champion Net Zero goals, and how public procurement might be used as another driver for change.
Icons Hazard

Top Tips for Local Authority Lawyers advising on Data Protection Matters

Charlotte Smith and Hannah Peto set out some of their top tips to consider when advising on data protection matters.
Icons Court

The Cost of Freedom of Information – The Council’s Failure to Advise

Charlotte Smith and Nadia Ahmed summarise the case and judgement of Moss v Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames and another (NJ/2018/007).
Icons QA

Ask the team

These are frequently asked questions to our experts from colleagues in Local Government via the Sharpe Pritchard ask the team facility concerning local authority companies, partnerships, charging and trading.
Icons Court

A call to review public contracts with Russian suppliers

Juli Lau and Gonzalo Puertas discuss the first official document to consider public sector contracts with companies linked to the Russian and Belarusian state regimes, issued by the Cabinet Office.
Icons Date

A New NEC Option to tackle greenwashing in the construction industry

Allan Owen and Sophie Drysdale discuss 'greenwashing' in the construction industry and a new secondary option clause X29 for its NEC4 suite of contracts developed by NEC.
Icons House

The Pathway to the Future – The Road Map for Employment Tribunals

David Leach discusses and outlines the road map of the planned changes for modernising the Tribunals in 2022 and 2023 released by The Presidents of the Employment Tribunals.
Icons House

Farrar Out

Clare Mendelle and James Goldthorpe discuss how the insolvency of Farrar Construction leads to clarity from the Courts on dealing with an insolvent contractor under JCT.
Icons House

The UK government has this week introduced the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill

Peter Collins and Sophie Pilcher discuss the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill introduced by the UK Government this week.
Icons Hazard

A sweet truth for selectivity

Steve Gummer and Gonzalo Puertas discuss a case that concerns an application for judicial review seeking to challenge a decision to introduce a zero-duty autonomous tariff quota (“ATQ”) of 260,000 metric tonnes of raw cane sugar for refining.
Icons House

Adjudication 101: Introduction and Overview

Michael Comba traces the origins of adjudication and considers why the process was introduced, who it is aimed towards and how construction contracts must include certain provisions.
Icons Date

New Government Guidance on PFI Expiry

Rob Hann, Head of Local Government at Sharpe Pritchard, takes a look at new guidance on PFI expiry recently published by the IPA to help public bodies wrestle with the complexities of transition they will face as these contracts reach full term.
Icons Hazard

Three new Levels to ‘level up’ Local Government in England?

Rob Hann, Sharpe Pritchard’s Head of local government, takes a look at the new proposals under the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper to facilitate devolution to remaining regions of local government in England which are currently without a Mayoral Combined Authority.
Icons Hazard

Will employers still be able to use the practice of ‘fire and rehire’ in 2022?

Christian Grierson and Julie Bann discuss a recent case in which the High Court has granted an injunction preventing Tesco from using the controversial employment practice of ‘fire and rehire’.
Slide background