Earlier this week, the Telegraph reported on a tribunal outcome (Holloway v Durdans Stables) with the eye-catching headline “Groom wins case against stable boss who refused to dismount from horse during meeting”. The subheading mentioned the “indignity” of discussing childcare arrangements on horseback. 
Was this really something that could have come straight from Blackadder 1 or Game of Thrones? Not quite. Upon closer examination, the meeting in question - when the business owner’s partner was in fact the only one remaining in the saddle, with everyone else left standing - was the last in a series of three. It took place two months before the groom’s was due to return from maternity leave in June 2021. The first meeting was in the previous summer, following a change of ownership, and touched upon the timing of return from maternity leave. The second meeting addressed the groom’s returning in more detail. 
However, between the last two meetings, the stables sought to assert that the groom’s previous working hours “would be needed on different days”, because of “changes”. This was at odds with her childcare arrangements. Subsequent emails following the last meeting saw the groom’s plea to keep her original hours and days fall on stony ground (unlike the business owner’s partner, we may infer), and she felt that she was forced to resign. At the tribunal, she won hands down with her claims for unfair constructive dismissal and maternity discrimination
What did the law have to say about this? The Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999 remind us that an employee returning from maternity leave is entitled to return to the same job if that is reasonably practicable, otherwise to one that is both suitable and appropriate for her. The Equality Act prohibits unfavourable treatment of an employee who has exercised her right to take ordinary or additional maternity leave. Not forgetting what the Employment Rights Act has to say about constructive dismissal when an employer’s actions are deemed beyond the pale. Ignore these measures and you’ll be riding for a fall. 
Here, the stables failed to show that it was not reasonably practicable to let the groom return to her previous hours on her contracted days. The alternative offered to her was neither suitable nor appropriate. As to constructive dismissal, one of a number of key observations was that the owner’s partner “did not even have the courtesy to get off her horse when meeting with [the groom] to discuss the situation”. One occasion when changing horses in midstream might have been the right thing to do… 
The newspaper report mentioned an award of £4,173.35 in compensation for unfair dismissal. However, that was not all. The groom also won £12,000 for injury to feelings arising from the maternity discrimination, more than a year’s salary. One of the aggravating factors was the indignity of the April meeting: “we’ve never come across anything like the situation where the owner’s partner held the meeting on the horse forcing everyone to stand.” Plainly the tribunal took a dislike to decisions having been made on the hoof. 
What lessons are to be learned? The expression “get off your high horse” is traditionally understood as “stop behaving in a superior manner”. Had the stables shown the groom a little more sympathy and understanding – attitudes that ought to be paramount when it comes to the treatment of employees seeking to return from maternity leave, given the underlying legal framework – and avoided riding roughshod over her rights and feelings, there might have been scope to avoid not only embarrassing newspaper headlines but also substantial compensation awards. Not taking the trouble to get it right, and indeed to seek advice about how best to do so, can mean an expensive lesson about getting it wrong. 
Are you facing a maternity leave issue, whether it is about returning or managing a return? Would it be wiser to look for a horse trade, rather than risk being left behind at the gate? Feel free to get in touch. Contact David Cooper on 0121 325 5402 or via dmc@coxcooper.co.uk. 
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