Defeat for council that sued boss for lying about illness

A former council chief executive had her mental health "cruelly broken" by her former employer which accused her of lying about her medical condition on her job application and pursued her through the courts, her husband said yesterday.

Cheltenham Borough Council said that Christine Laird, 52, "fraudulently or negligently" withheld details of her history of depressive illness when she applied to be managing director.

But at the High Court yesterday, after a legal battle which started in January and involved 39 days in court, Mr Justice Hamblen dismissed the action. He also rejected a counterclaim for damages by Mrs Laird.

Her husband, Hugh, said in a statement: "Christine was truthful, reasonable and honest when she filled in the medical form that lay at the heart of this case. That has now been proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. But, above all, she was a good chief executive who helped to bring investment and jobs to Cheltenham. Christine's mental health has been cruelly broken. The personal cost of all this is not financial – the price was so nearly her life."

Mrs Laird, from Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, took up the post in February 2002 and left in August 2005 on an ill-health pension after taking sick leave on full pay from June 2004. As a result, the council claimed it suffered losses of more than £1m.

Mrs Laird left after what the court judgment described as "an atmosphere of mutual distrust" developed between her and Andrew McKinlay, who was appointed as the new council leader in elections held three months into her tenure. In the three years that followed, Mrs Laird claimed she was harassed and bullied, and eventually had a breakdown.

But the council said her failure to disclose details of previous depressive issues – she had "three episodes of depression with associated anxiety" between 1997 and 2001 – meant she was guilty of "deceit". It said that had it known of these episodes, it would not have employed her. The case was monitored closely by mental health campaigners, who feared that a win for the council would set a precedent forcing anyone with a depressive illness to declare it when they applied for a job. At the centre of the case was a medical questionnaire. To the question "Do you normally enjoy good health?" she replied "Yes"; and to "Do you have a mental impairment?" she replied "No".

The court was told that Mrs Laird saw her episodes between 1997 and 2001 as "stress-related illness and not depression". She also said she believed the stress and illness had ceased and was taking antidepressants as part of a "weaning-off" process.

The judge said the representations she had made were neither false nor misleading "given the terms of the questions", and that, according to both the Mental Health Act and the Disability Discrimination Act, she did not have an impairment. But he also rejected claims by Mrs Laird, who said the appointment was "unconditional" in that there was no mention of a medical report being required. He also rejected her counterclaim that the council was in breach of its duty towards her by failing to protect her against harassment.

The judge ordered the council to pay 65 per cent of Mrs Laird's estimated £540,000 legal costs, leaving her with a bill of around £190,000. He said he was not awarding her full costs because she had "thrown the kitchen sink" at the authority and made allegations against individuals that had been rejected.

Mrs Laird, who said she would be left bankrupt if she was not awarded costs, had to be led from court, apparently having had a panic attack. The council's own legal costs came to £400,000 – leaving taxpayers in Cheltenham with a bill of about £750,000.

The judge said: "It is over eight years since Mrs Laird joined the council, and much of the intervening period has been spent in bitter dispute before various tribunals, at much personal and financial cost. I very much hope that a line can now finally be drawn, allowing Mrs Laird to get on with her life and the council to get on with the business of governing Cheltenham."

Cheltenham Borough Council's current chief executive, Andrew North, said: "Clearly we are disappointed with today's judgment. While the outcome is not what we had hoped for, we felt we had a duty to take action to recover losses for what we felt was a disastrous time for the council."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Chemistry Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: [ Megan Smith 22/09/2014 17:00:...

Foundation and KS1 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Foundation and Key Stage 1...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments