A trainee who complained of “a perceived lack of training” a few weeks after starting work at a small Norfolk law firm was not a whistleblower, an employment tribunal has ruled.
Employment Judge Postle described Richard Attoe, a former journalist, as “an obstructive and confrontational individual who appeared to have his own agenda in seeking compensation” from KJL Solicitors in Blofield.
The judge went on: “It is clear that the claimant throughout his training with the respondents disliked being supervised and was over-defensive when mistakes were brought to his attention”.
Judge Postle said Mr Attoe’s training at the firm, led by principal Kerry Joan-Law, “could not have been as lacking as he maintained” as he had ultimately qualified as a solicitor “only one month later than originally expected”.
However, the judge upheld Mr Attoe’s claim that KJL was in breach of contract and ordered the firm to pay him one month’s notice, along with £550 for unlawful deduction of wages and unpaid expenses of £120.
Judge Postle said Mr Attoe, a “mature candidate in his forties”, had completed a year’s paralegal work at another Norfolk law firm before starting work as a trainee solicitor at KJL on 1 March 2017.
His salary was £15,000 for a 40-hour week, plus a training budget of £3,000 in his first year, which if unused, could be paid as salary.
Judge Postle said Mr Attoe first raised concerns over the quality of his training on 20 March, less than three weeks after starting work on conveyancing files; among other things, he complained about having all his emails checked before sending.
“Within a very short period of time, tensions had arisen” between Mr Attoe and Elizabeth Lawson, the solicitor supervising him, the tribunal recorded.
“The claimant seemed to think that within a matter of days into his training that he should be dealing with conveyancing files from start to finish.”
By July or August 2017, Mr Attoe informed Ms Joan-Law that “he had had enough of conveyancing” and it was agreed that he would run down his residential conveyancing work and continue his training in commercial property and litigation.
Although Mr Attoe’s relationship with Ms Lawson got better after the switch, his relationship with Ms Joan-Law “became tense”.
The tribunal found: “It seems to be the case that the claimant cannot accept constructive feedback or supervision. It would appear any suggestion of a training issue with the claimant would make him defensive.”
Ms Lawson’s daughter was admitted to hospital in December 2017 for surgery to remove a brain tumour, which led to Ms Lawson leaving the practice and Ms Joan-Law having to cover her conveyancing cases.
It was decided that Mr Attoe should leave KJL in February 2018 and complete his training contract at a nearby firm, Maddison & Morgan.
Judge Postle said “utter frustration” that Mr Attoe would not confirm his position over the transfer led to Ms Joan-Law’s decision to terminate his employment on the grounds of redundancy in January 2018.
The judge said Mr Attoe’s first alleged protected disclosure under the Employment Rights Act 1996, in which he raised a number of issues about his “perceived lack of training”, came within “a matter of weeks of the claimant commencing his training”.
Judge Postle said it was “patently clear at the time the alleged protected disclosure was made that it did not satisfy the definition of a qualifying protected disclosure”.
He went on: “Even if it was a qualified protected disclosure, was it made in the public interest? The tribunal concludes no, it was merely made in the claimant’s interest.”
Judge Postle said the decision to terminate Mr Attoe’s contract “had nothing to do” with any disclosure and was due to the fact that he “wanted to transfer his training contract”.
Mr Attoe would go to the new firm at a higher salary and KJL could not continue with his training because of Ms Lawson’s departure.
Judge Postle concluded that the tribunal found Ms Joan-Law an “honest, credible witness who was prepared to acknowledge her own shortcomings over the claimant’s employment”.
In contrast, Mr Attoe was “evasive” when cross-examined and “had to be frequently warned to answer a simple and straightforward question put to him”.