DWF trainee loses unfair dismissal claim over confidential emails

Emails: Trainee sent client information to friend

A trainee solicitor fired by listed law firm DWF for sharing confidential client information with a friend has failed in her unfair dismissal claim before an employment tribunal.

Hayley Tansey, who was approaching the end of her training contract, admitted what she had done but argued her actions did not amount to gross misconduct or justify dismissal.

However, the tribunal in Manchester, led by Employment Judge Langridge, found that it was within the range of reasonable responses by DWF.

The tribunal recorded that, in late 2013 and in 2014, Ms Tansey worked with the firm on an occasional basis in order to gain work experience.

“This came about because the claimant had a close personal friendship with one of the firm’s partners, Rachel Jones.

“The work experience was not paid employment but it was arranged and carried out on the understanding that the claimant was to be offered a contract of employment with the firm.”

It said one of the reasons Ms Jones was keen to recruit Ms Tansey was that she was a mature student, who was coming into the legal profession after working for 19 years in banking and then as a director of two businesses operated by Ms Tansey’s “friend and mentor”, Gina Ramsay.

During the period of work experience, Ms Jones sent Ms Tansey some emails containing confidential client information.

Ms Tansey joined DWF as a paralegal in October 2014 and became a trainee solicitor in September 2015.

In March 2017, DWF became aware that she had sent two emails to clients without them being checked by a supervisor or more senior colleague, in breach of its supervision policy.

The resulting examination of her email account showed she had been sending emails containing client information to Ms Ramsay and to her own private email address.

The material included legal advice which was subject to legal professional privilege; ‘key client news’ updates; a template zero-hours contract produced for a client; and papers relating to litigation with third parties that included their identity and personal medical information.

The tribunal said: “The claimant acknowledged from the outset that she had carried out the actions for which she was disciplined, though she disagreed that dismissal was a fair sanction.

“Her principal argument was that her actions were not deliberate and did not amount to gross misconduct or misconduct of sufficient seriousness to warrant dismissal.”

Her mitigation included the fact that, during the period of work experience, Ms Jones had “encouraged her to communicate by email in such a way as to blur the boundaries between what was legitimate to send out of the office, and what was not”.

The tribunal added: “She defended her actions by saying her actions were not done deliberately or for anyone’s gain. She argued that no harm had resulted, though conceded… that this was more a matter of luck.

“Her explanation for forwarding information was that it was for her own personal development, and also because she and Ms Ramsay enjoyed discussing law with each other.

“Ms Ramsay had an academic interest in law although she was no longer practising, after previously working as a solicitor in Australia.”

On the zero-hours contract, Ms Tansey said Ms Ramsay had asked about one for her cleaning staff, while she had not realised the key client news updates were confidential as they contained information in the public domain. However, she conceded that they disclosed the names of DWF’s clients, which was itself confidential information.

The tribunal said it was “not convinced” by Ms Tansey’s evidence about her knowledge and understanding of the rules on confidentiality she was required to comply with.

“It was inconsistent and at times evasive, for example when she was asked about aspects of the respondent’s policy on IT usage. The explanations offered for sending the information to Ms Ramsay, and her assertion that she was an equivalent trusted person were inherently implausible.

“Overall the tribunal was satisfied that the claimant did have a good understanding and awareness of the fundamental requirement of protecting client confidentiality…

“Having regard to the contractual and common law principles applicable to the case, which the claimant acknowledged were also a matter of common sense for a prospective solicitor, the tribunal concludes that the breaches of confidentiality were of a very serious nature and that in principle it was open to the respondent to dismiss the claimant summarily for them.”

It added that the “highly confidential material” she disclosed “bore no comparison with the information she received from Ms Jones for the purpose of work experience”.

“Although the claimant tried to persuade the respondent that the two cases were equivalent, and even sought to compare her relationship with Ms Ramsay and Ms Jones as that of equivalent trusted friends, this portrayal was self-evidently incorrect and the respondent had a proper basis upon which to treat Ms Ramsay as a third party entirely unconnected with the firm.”

Every communication sent by Ms Jones to the claimant before her employment began “was sent in the context of work placement arrangements and in anticipation of future employment with the firm”.

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