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Friday 23 August 2019

Irish Prison Service ordered to pay long serving female prison officer €20,000 for gender discrimination

Valerie Smollen suffered gender discrimination
Valerie Smollen suffered gender discrimination

Gordon Deegan

The Irish Prison Service (IPS) has been ordered to pay €20,000 compensation to a long serving female prison officer after she successfully claimed that she was discriminated against in the workplace because she is a woman.

In her ruling, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudication Officer, Gaye Cunningham has ordered the IPS to pay Valerie Smollen €20,000 after finding that the IPS removed Ms Smollen from a roster for high ranking prison officers roster because she is a woman.

Ms Cunningham has made the award to Ms Smollen “for the distress suffered by her as a result of the discrimination”.

Ms Smollen has worked for the IPS since June 1994 and contended that she has been the subject of discrimination over a period of time with the first serious incident of discrimination occurring in 2010.

At the outset, the IPS sought to avoid answering Ms Smollen’s case by stating that she was making her complaint against the wrong entity as it argued that it is not in itself a public body established under statute and has no separate legal identity.

However, Ms Cunningham dismissed these points stating that the IPS has over many decades responded to claims and complaints before the Labour Court, the Labour Relations Commission and latterly the WRC and is an entity with a Director General and employees.

Ms Smollen said that she was an Acting Asst Chief Officer (ACCO) from 2013 before her removal from the roster in 2016.

The duties of an ACO include taking charge of over 800 prisoners and 16 staff on night duties.

Ms Smollen claimed that she was removed from the ACCO roster despite having three years experience in 2016 and having been successful in competition for ACO while another male colleague was placed on the roster.

In her findings, Ms Cunningham found it significant that there was agreement between the Prison Officers Association (POA) and management to remove Ms Smollen from the ACCO roster and replace her.

Ms Cunningham stated that Ms Smollen on 17th August 2016 came to a belief that the POA at local level were involved in “shafting” her off the ACCO panel.

Ms Cunningham stated that while the POA is not responsible for the actions at issue, Ms Smollen has established the significant facts from which inference may be drawn that the IPS has by their actions discriminated against Ms Smollen on the ground of sex.

Ms Cunningham said that she is satisfied from the totality of evidence that Ms Smollen has established a link between her removal from the ACCO roster and her removal from a training course and a failure to provide her with management training.

Ms Cunningham stated that the IPS has failed to discharge the burden of proof that the treatment was in no sense whatsoever on the grounds of sex.

According to Ms Cunningham, Ms Smollen suggested that there is a common thread - namely an attempt by the Prison Authorities to reduce the number of female officers being promoted.

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