If the tribunal finds she has an addiction, her lawyers will be able to make a claim under the Disability and Discrimination Act 1995, which provides for unlimited compensation.
The woman is said to have spent her working day down-loading pornography, searching contact sites and surfing the Internet. Her employer's lawyer, David Green, claimed the "inordinate amount of time" the woman had spent on the Net meant she was unable to do her secretarial duties.
Mr Green said the tribunal would have to rule on whether her behaviour constituted an addiction or was simply unreasonable in the context of her employment. He said a number of warnings had been issued before the London-based company decided to sack the woman.
Mr Green is currently advising four City institutions on cases where employees have been sacked for down-loading pornography from the Internet. He said some of the firms were unable to sack staff found to be down-loading pornography because the practice had become so rife. Guilty employees were using this argument as a defence, said Mr Green, who estimated that few businesses in the City were unaffected by the problem.
James Davies, an expert in employment law at the London solicitors Lewis Silkin, said an Internet addiction could be a disability if there was enough medical evidence to prove it. Employment lawyers warn that there will be more, similar cases. "This is the fastest growing area of employment problems," Mr Davies said.
Both Mr Davies and Mr Green said companies would have to set up Internet policies detailing what employees could and could not do.
Employment tribunals would also need to know whether an employer had acted consistently in sacking a staff member. To show this, companies would have to trace all employees' Internet use. But such widespread surveillancecould fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives employees the right to privacy.
The Home Office said it was consulting on tightening the regulations over the interception of communications and was examining whether legislation covering other types of surveillance needed changing.Reuse content