A former soldier claiming damages for racist slurs from an army sergeant was not the victim of ‘very serious’ abuse, Ministry of Defence (MoD) lawyers have claimed.
African-born William Kemeh, 34, from Aldershot, is claiming compensation from the MoD after he was called ‘dumb’ and told to ‘shut up’ with a reference to the colour of his skin by a senior NCO and, separately, by a civilian butcher while serving as an Army private in the Falklands.
Mr Kemeh, who was insulted during a discussion about black England footballer Jermaine Defoe, was said to have been ‘very upset’ by the sergeant’s words.
He was originally awarded £3,500 for the butcher’s comment and another £12,000 for the sergeant’s abuse – but those were slashed to zero and £6,000, respectively, by employment judges at an employment appeal tribunal (EAT) last March.
Arguing that the full payouts should now be restored, Mr Kemeh’s barrister, Daphne Romney QC, insisted judges were wrong to say the MoD should not pay for the civilian’s words
They were also wrong to find the £12,000 awarded for the sergeant’s comment ‘manifestly excessive’ and ‘wrong in principle’, Mrs Romney told the Appeal Court.
The MoD is contesting Mr Kemeh’s Appeal Court bid to increase his payout from £6,000 to £15,500 and claims the abuse was a ‘one-off’ and not very serious.
“The one-off act of discrimination in question here was plainly not of the very serious nature which might lawfully have attracted such an award,” said MoD barrister Mathew Purchase.
The court heard Mr Kemeh moved to the UK from Ghana in 2004 and joined the British Army. He was trained as a cook and posted to the Falklands, where the abuse took place at the Four Seasons Mess.
The private, who was serving with the First Battalion Welsh Guards, was discussing the England striker during the 2010 World Cup when he was subjected to the racial slur, Lords Justice Elias, Lewison and Kitchin heard.
A month earlier, in June 2010, he had been the victim of similar abuse when he went to a store to pick up some chicken to cook soup for his colleagues and was given only two pieces of meat.
Mr Kemeh asked for more and was told by the civilian butcher, employed by the MoD as a contractor: “Why should I trust you? First of all, you are a private in the British Army and then you are black.”
“An insult from a superior is deeply distressing, but it is also, in military terms, wholly unsettling,” said Mrs Romney.
“Trust between military personnel is paramount and Private Kemeh’s distress should be recognised within that context. As is made clear from his witness statement, he was so upset that he considered leaving the army immediately and would have done, but for the small inconvenience of being stationed in the Falklands 8,000 miles from home.”
Contesting the appeal, Mr Purchase submitted that the earlier ruling at the EAT was correct. He said he believed the EAT was entitled to find that the award of £12,000 for injury to feelings in respect of the single, one-off comment was excessive, both in isolation and in comparison with other cases.
“It is submitted an award of £12,000 was manifestly too high,” he said. Recognising the importance of the issues, the judges decided to reserve their decision on Mr Kemeh’s appeal until a later date.