An Employment Appeal Tribunal made an important landmark ruling in April 1989 that ‘a single incident of sexual harassment, provided it is sufficiently serious’ might constitute a breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

Prior to this, case law (such as Strathclyde Regional Council v. Porcelli of 1986) had dealt only with cases in which harassment continued over a period of time.

The case of Darby v. Bracebridge Engineering had arisen in 1987 when a female factory operator made a complaint that she had been sexually assaulted by a works manager and chargehand when she was preparing to go home one afternoon. Although she raised the matter with the general manager, nothing was done. She told the original industrial tribunal that the incident left her feeling ‘utterly disgusted and degraded’. She turned to the Birmingham District Citizen’s Advice Bureau, who represented her at this hearing, explaining how ‘This lady felt totally unprotected and at risk from these men and felt she had no option but to leave’ (Birmingham Mail, 30 Jan 1988, p5). The industrial tribunal upheld her complaint, ruling she had suffered both sex discrimination and constructive dismissal, and awarding her £3900 in compensation.

Her employers, however, decided to appeal, arguing (amongst other points) that it could not be harassment (and thus discrimination) because it only related to one alleged event. Barrister Vivienne Gay represented Darby, instructed by the Birmingham CAB.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed the employer’s appeal on 27 April 1989, finding that:

The industrial tribunal was entitled to find that a single act of sex discrimination was a “detriment” to the complainant notwithstanding the dictionary definition of “harassment” as a continuing case of conduct’. ([1990]IRLR 3).