A report last summer on a case before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), suggested that an obese person may be classed as disabled for the purposes of equality legislation. The Northern Ireland Industrial Tribunal has now followed the ECJ approach to this question in the case of Bickerstaff v Butcher.
Mr Bickerstaff was harassed at work by colleagues, including Mr Butcher, because of his weight. He was morbidly obese, having a body mass index of 48.5, and suffered from poor health as a consequence. He would be short of breath after only minimal exertion, and suffered from sleep apnoea and gout.
The medical evidence indicated that Mr Bickerstaff could end his morbid obesity after only 6 months, if he took active steps to lose weight. However, there was no guarantee that he would do so.
The Tribunal took the same approach as the ECJ in ignoring the fact that the Claimant's obesity was self-inflicted and could probably be remedied if he were to take active steps to lose weight. Instead it looked at whether his condition hindered full and active participation at work, which it clearly did. Therefore, the Tribunal found that he was disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act, and that the harassment he had suffered was for a reason related to his disability, making it unlawful.