Barrister’s treatment of more junior opponent “verged on bullying”

Tribunal: Hearing had to be adjourned

The behaviour of the barrister who called her more junior opponent a liar before an employment tribunal and mimicked her voice verged on bullying, a disciplinary panel has decided.

Althea Brown of Doughty Street Chambers took an “aggressive and disruptive approach to get the result she wanted for her client”, it said.

The bare details of the reprimand and fine imposed on Ms Brown last month have been fleshed out by the full decision now published by the Bar Tribunals and Adjudication Service.

Ms Brown was called in 1995 and represented the claimant employee in the proceedings for £6,000 in unpaid wages. ‘Ms C’, called in 2014, acted for the employer. Both had “considerable experience” of appearing in the employment tribunal.

Hostilities began at the start of the final hearing in September 2019, when Ms Brown – who was only instructed a week earlier – applied to amend the agreed list of issues, having only notified the respondent of her intention to do so at 9pm the previous evening without disclosing what the changes would be.

Ms C objected and after a fractious hearing over two days, the judge vacated the hearing and relisted it.

In her reasons, she recorded that Ms C had not returned to the hearing during the second morning because she felt ill. Her instructing solicitor, Ms W – who was also “visibly distressed” – requested the adjournment.

The judge explained: “The hearing was distressing primarily because of the conduct of Ms Brown. She spoke to Ms C in a very patronising manner and at one point called her a liar. She periodically spoke over both Ms C and myself.

“She mimicked the way Ms C was speaking and tried to make a mockery of her name. She also said at one point that Ms C was intellectually incapable of dealing with the issue.

“On each occasion, I asked Ms Brown to apologise and informed her that such behaviour was unprofessional and not permitted in my courtroom. Ms Brown apologised on the first day but refused to do son the second day, stating that she would ‘reflect on it’.

“After an adjournment, she did apologise. This was after, however, Ms C had sent myself a note during the adjournment stating that she was not well due to the bullying and insulting behaviour of Ms Brown.”

The judge said Ms W at one point had “an outburst” towards Ms Brown. “I asked her to address her points through Ms C. Ms W was also mimicked by Ms Brown.”

The judge added that she herself was “distracted” by Ms Brown’s behaviour and found it difficult to concentrate as a result. “My ability to make decisions was therefore possibly compromised.”

At the relisted hearing, Ms Brown’s application was dismissed, which the Bar tribunal said “entirely vindicated” Ms C’s position and showed that the earlier hearing “had been a complete waste of time and money”. The claim ultimately succeeded, however.

In her evidence to the Bar tribunal, Ms Brown denied calling Ms C a liar and said she did not challenge the judge’s claim that she had because she was “taken aback” by it.

However, the tribunal found the allegation proved, saying there was no reason the judge would have recorded it otherwise.

It found too that Ms Brown “mimicked and/or mocked Ms C by altering her tone of voice” and described Ms C’s argument as the equivalent of saying “I’m going to scream and scream until I’m sick”, a literary reference to the character Violet Elizabeth Bott in the Just William books.

This implied that Ms C was behaving in a “childish and petulant way in order to get her own way”, the tribunal said.

The final comment it found proved was the assertion of Ms C’s “fundamental intellectual difficulty” to grasp Ms Brown’s case.

The tribunal said Ms Brown was in breach of her duty to the court through her “over-aggressive and offensive behaviour”. Her conduct was “seriously reprehensible” and amounted to serious professional misconduct. It also damaged public trust.

In deciding sanction, the tribunal said it was “noteworthy” how much more junior Ms C was to Ms Brown in call.

“In our judgment, Ms Brown, not having provided any written document showing exactly what amendments she wished to make to the list of issues previously agreed between counsel then acting for each side, adopted an aggressive and disruptive approach to get the result she wanted for her client, an approach which got out of hand.

“It was conduct verging on bullying. [Her] conduct was deliberate in order to achieve her aim.”

The tribunal found that the apology Ms Brown made on the second day was “not exactly” sincere and more of a “token”.

“[She] does not appear to have understood or taken seriously the impact her behaviour was having on her opponent and for that matter on the judge.”

It felt similarly about an apology made through Ms Brown’s solicitors after the disciplinary proceedings had started. “A sincere apology might have been a personal letter from Ms Brown… We find that there was a lack of genuine remorse.”

The tribunal concluded that Ms Brown’s conduct was “out of character”. The latest sanctions guidance indicated a low-level fine of up to £5,000 and it decided an appropriate sanction was a reprimand and fine of £750 on each of the two breaches, meaning £1,500, plus Bar Standards Board costs of £5,820.

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