British #MeToo victims silenced by legal misunderstanding

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 00:01 GMT

Protesters carrying banners take part in the Women's March on London, in central London, Britain January 21, 2017. The march formed part of a worldwide day of action following the election of Donald Trump to U.S. President. REUTERS/Marika Kochiashvili

Image Caption and Rights Information
The government has pledged to bring in a code of practice on sexual harassment for employers and look into options to better regulate non-disclosure agreement

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British victims of workplace sexual misconduct can speak to police even if they have signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with their bosses, but not everyone knows it.

The government announced action on Tuesday to ensure people are aware of their rights after a report on workplace harassment by the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee found the government, regulators and employers all failing to tackle the issue.

Non-disclosure agreements are ubiquitous in commercial transactions and are commonly used to protect a company's confidential information and trade secrets.

Such deals were thrust into the spotlight by the sexual assault scandal that has engulfed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who used NDAs as part of settlements with alleged victims.

The government pledged to bring in a code of practice on sexual harassment for employers and look into options to better regulate NDAs, including the option of introducing a standard clause explaining the limits of the agreement in plain English.

"Sexual harassment at work is illegal, but sadly that disgusting behaviour is something that many women still experience today," said Victoria Atkins, the minister for women, in a statement.

"We are taking action to make sure employers know what they have to do to protect their staff, and people know their rights at work."

"People (are left) feeling very anxious about how these clauses interact with their ability to go on and report any wrongdoing over and above what they have told their employer," said Francesca West of whistleblowing group Protect.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in March this year warned there was "no excuse" for using the agreements to conceal potential crimes or sexual misconduct.

Protect said that all settlements should include specific advice for victims to clarify what they do not cover and ensure they know they can still blow the whistle to police or authorities over serious incidents.

However, others questioned the value of reforms to NDAs.

"As solicitors, no settlement agreement is binding unless it has been explained to a client by a solicitor," said Andrew Lloyd, the head of employment law at Lloyd Donnelly Solicitors.

"Any solicitor worth his salt will know you can't gag people from talking to the law about certain things or covering up criminal acts."

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Jason Fields. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.