Disability discrimination legislation is finally starting to bite in British workplaces, with compensation awards rising sharply last year, nearly a decade after new laws were introduced.
The UK's Disability Discrimination Act came on to the statute book in 1995 but last year saw the biggest increase in awards to date, up by 89 per cent from 2003, according to research by the specialist journal Equal Opportunities Review.
Although there were slightly fewer compensation awards for sex, race and disability discrimination in the workplace overall, 2004 proved to be the most costly on record for employers.
Awards in 368 cases totalled a whopping £6,002,002, and represented a substantial rise from the previous year, when awards across all three jurisdictions reached £4.3 million.
There was a general upwards trend in the amount tribunals were prepared to award across all three areas of discrimination, with disability discrimination seeing the biggest jump.
Overall, across all jurisdictions, the average awards (£16,276) and median award (£7,065) went up by 48 per cent and 25 per cent respectively from 2003, even though there were none of the record-breaking payouts last seen in 2002.
Disability discrimination attracted the highest awards, with the average total coming out at £28,889, more than double the next highest, race discrimination, at £13,720.
Disability discrimination also topped the awards for injury to feeling, with the average and median (£6,763 and £5,000 respectively) higher than for race or sex discrimination.
Tribunals awarded more than £100,000 in 9 per cent of disability cases, compared with just 1 per cent of sex cases and no race cases.
Awards in disability cases were boosted by the amount given for future loss of earnings, accounting for 33 per cent of the total amount awarded.
Among other findings, pregnancy and childcare issues continued to top the sex discrimination award tables, found EOR.
The number of awards for dismissal because of pregnancy went up to 96 compared with 90 in 2003), and accounted for 44 per cent of cases and the level of award also increased.
The number of race case awards dropped from 61 in 2003 to 54 last year. However, there was no decrease in the number of claims being made, and the drop in awards is possibly down to greater efforts to achieve more conciliated settlements, suggested the journal.
Overall, awards in the highest band (more than £100,000) increased from four in 2003 to 11 in 2004 and almost two-thirds of all awards were for £5,000 and over.
EOR editor Sue Johnstone said: "Disability discrimination legislation is really beginning to bite and, judging by the awards that employment tribunals are making, they are looking sympathetically at future loss of earnings.
"Tribunals are also awarding more for injury to feeling, recognising the seriousness of disability discrimination and the devastating effect it can have on individuals, on their confidence at work and their future employment," she added.
As yet there had been very few successful cases under new religious discrimination laws, she conceded.
But with reports of a 600 per cent increase in racially motivated crime following the terrorist attacks in London, "it is inevitable that there will be a knock-on effect at the workplace", Johnstone predicted.
"What is clear is that tribunals are increasingly prepared to order substantial awards to employees who have suffered discrimination – whatever the nature of that discrimination," she said.
"Although the number of cases where compensation is awarded has fallen, the total amount awarded has increased dramatically. This trend is likely to continue and employers ignore the signals at their peril."