In whistleblowing cases – what is the meaning of “public interest”?

“Whistleblowing” is a term used to identify situations in which an employee reports a suspected wrongdoing at the workplace, such as health and safety concerns. As a result of this, the employee makes a “protected disclosure” as defined under the relevant whistleblowing legislation (the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013).  

If this disclosure is made in the public interest, then the employee enjoys certain protection from unfair treatment in connection with that disclosure. For example, an employee should not be unfairly dismissed because he or she brings to the attention of an employer a wrongdoing at the workplace.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal considered the meaning of “public interest” in Chesterton Global Ltd v Nurmohamed, a case concerned with some public disclosures made by Mr Nurmohamed about the manipulation of the company’s accounts which resulted in reduced commission received by him and a group of around 100 senior managers.

It was held that public interest does not mean in the interest of the public as a whole, as it is inevitable that only a certain part of the public will be affected by that disclosure. Therefore, the test is, if the employee who makes the public disclosure has a reasonable belief that it was in the public’s interest. In Chesterton Global, the senior manager reported the issues with the accounts due to his own interests, but also to protect the interests of the other senior managers. As a result, he believed that such disclosure was in the public interest. On the contrary, if an employee makes a public disclosure due to his own interests, for example, because his own employment contract has been breached, this is unlikely to be considered to be in the public interest.

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