July 2013 witnessed a landmark ruling when Peadar Heffron, a PSNI constable suffering serious injuries as a result of a terrorist car bomb blast in 2010, was awarded an Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit by the Social Security Commissioner. This was the first time that a police officer in Northern Ireland has been successful in establishing before the Commissioner that their journey to and from work could be classed as being “on duty”.
For many employees the issue of travelling to and from work, and whether such travel can be considered to be “during work hours”, will be clearly outlined in terms and conditions of employment. However for certain professions (and in particular police officers) there is no such thing as a contract of employment. This type of employment then calls into question when exactly does an employee “clock on” and “clock off”. In this case, what constitutes the hours of employment was at the heart of the claim.
An Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit is a weekly payment made by the Northern Ireland government to employees who are injured or ill as a result of an accident or disease caused by their work. Once this disability has been accepted by the Social Security Agency, medical evidence is obtained to confirm the extent of the disability and the amount of benefit to be paid.
In this case, no-one could argue that the life-threatening injuries sustained by this officer represented anything short of the highest category of disability – the argument arose in determining whether the injuries occurred “in the course of the officer’s employment”.
The facts of the case clearly established the officer was only targeted because he was a police officer (and therefore as a direct consequence of his employment). However the Social Security Agency refused the officer’s application, stating he was not in work or carrying out duties associated with his work when the injury occurred.
Previous case law in this area had determined that an officer had to do something to put himself on duty when injured outside his uniformed duties. Being injured simply because he was a police officer was not enough. A modern example of the application of how this (now overturned) principle worked is as follows:
An officer, on his way home from work, stops off at a local shop. When walking into the shop he encounters an armed robber who is holding the shop assistant at gun point. Were the officer to radio for assistance or to identify himself to the robber as an off duty police officer and be shot as result of these steps, then he has put himself on duty. Were the officer to have walked into the shop and been shot instantly, that officer could not have claimed for an Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit as no active step had been taken, before the injury occurred, to put himself on duty.
In the recent Appeal to the Commissioner, the Social Security Commissioner overturned this principle by stating a police officer, outside of his uniformed hours of work, could still technically be on duty if the injury sustained arose because of his or her work. This is because the Social Security
Commissioner recognised the unique nature of being a police officer in Northern Ireland, in comparison to other police forces throughout the UK. He considered that the regular threat of terrorism or attack is much greater and none more so than for officers travelling to and from work.
This ruling will have considerable implications for police officers as they can now be reassured that if they are injured as a result of their job outside of official work hours, they could potentially claim for an Industrial Injury Disablement Benefit on the basis that they were injured while on duty and as a result of that duty.
Please contact Raymond Johnston for any enquiries regarding this matter.
View the clipping from the Belfast Telegraph