Case study: Sullivan v Isle of Wight Council

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) recently delivered an interesting judgment in the case of Sullivan v Isle of Wight Council, providing guidance to employers on how to approach protected disclosure detriment claims brought by external job applicants.

Facts of the Sullivan v Isle of Wight Council case

Ms Sullivan had applied for two different financial positions with the council in 2019. She was unsuccessful in securing either position. In 2020, Ms Sullivan filed an online crime report to the Police alleging, among other things, that an employee of the council had referred to her as ‘mentally insane’ during an interview process. She also alleged that a charitable trust, which she stated was a dormant company, had been taking revenue from visitors and that the manager who sat on both interview panels for the council was a trustee of that charity. Ms Sullivan also contacted the council’s confidential safeguarding helpline, the council’s chief executive, the Care Quality Commission and her MP.

The council carried out an investigation into Miss Sullivan’s allegations under its internal disciplinary procedure. The investigation found no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of council staff and Miss Sullivan’s complaint was not upheld. The council concluded that the usual right of appeal under their complaint procedure was not appropriate given the extent of the investigation and the impact it had on the staff involved.

Miss Sullivan alleged that her letter to her MP, which raised allegations against the council manager who allegedly had a role at the charitable trust had committed fraud and/or breached his legal obligations due to alleged financial irregularities in the operation of the trust, amounted to a protected disclosure.

Employment Tribunal decision

Miss Sullivan brought a claim against the council, alleging that she had made protected disclosures, and that those disclosures were the reason her job application had been unsuccessful. Usually, only employees or workers have whistleblower protection. Miss Sullivan tried to rely on the 2019 case of Gilham v Ministry of Justice. In Gilham, the Supreme Court had found that Articles 10 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) extended whistleblower protection to a district judge, who was an office holder rather than a worker. The Employment Tribunal found that Miss Sullivan’s status as job applicant was not analogous to that of an existing worker or employee and that she was not entitled to whistleblower protection under the ECHR. Miss Sullivan appealed to the EAT.

In the EAT, Ms Sullivan claimed that an external job applicant was analogous to internal job applicants and/or NHS job applicants – relying on the fact that the Employment Rights Act 1996 confers specific whistleblowing protection on NHS job applicants.

EAT Decision

The EAT dismissed the appeal, making the following findings:

  • An external job applicant was not in an analogous situation to that of an internal applicant who is already embedded in the workplace. An internal application does not derive their whistleblower protection from that status.
  • There were specific reasons related to patient safety for the extension of whistleblower protection to external NHS job applicants and those considerations did not apply here.
  • The less favourable treatment relied on by Miss Sullivan was not suffered by her in her capacity as an external job applicant. The disclosure relied upon by Miss Sullivan did not relate to the job application process and the detriment claimed concerned the application of a local authority complaints procedure which was independent of the job application process and therefore unconnected to the status relied upon.


This case is a useful reminder that when it comes to protected disclosures, these cases are very fact-sensitive. An external job applicant does not have the same protection as an internal job applicant.

Sasha Dixon is a trainee solicitor in our employment law team.