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Law firm fights off wages claim from consultant solicitor

Tribunal: No evidence solicitor was an employee

An employment tribunal has rejected claims for unpaid wages and holiday pay from a solicitor who worked as a consultant at a law firm and it decided was not an employee.

Employment Judge Miller in Birmingham said it was “inconceivable” that Gboyega Okunniga would have worked as a solicitor for 14 months as “an employee with no pay” at Clifton Law Solicitors in Coventry.

“The far more obvious explanation is that the claimant was continuing to work as a consultant under the services agreement and obtain remuneration from that.”

The judge went on: “I have seen no evidence to support the claimant’s asserted belief that he was ever an employee and to that extent, the claimant’s claim to the employment tribunal, was at best, opportunistic.”

Judge Miller said Mr Okunniga “enjoyed a high degree of autonomy” and was “free to accept or refuse particular instructions, free to come and go at the office to suit his convenience and was not under any real or effective control”.

“Further, the claimant was, under the consultancy agreement, able to use his ability to manage his working time and source his own clients to increase his profits.”

The judge said Mr Okunniga’s own evidence was that, even by the end of his relationship with Clifton Law in January 2020, the amount that he was entitled to in wages was not settled.

The tribunal heard that, following his departure from the firm, Mr Okunniga made claims for unfair dismissal, unauthorised deductions from wages, holiday pay and a statement of the main terms and conditions of his employment.

Judge Miller said Mr Okunniga started working for Clifton Law Solicitors “in around May 2018”.

His unfair dismissal claim was struck out in June 2020 on the grounds that the solicitor had worked for the law firm for less than two years.

Judge Miller said his remaining claims stood or fell on whether he was an employee.

He said Mr Okunniga signed a consultancy agreement with the firm in September 2018, and the “terms of that contract are clear and the basis of it is undisputed” that it did not create a contract of employment.

Clifton Law had secured a legal aid contract in housing and debt advice earlier that year, which was signed in October 2018.

Rita Onwuka, director of Clifton Law, asked Mr Okunniga to undertake the role of supervisor of the contract in June 2018 and confirmed to the Legal Aid Agency that he was a “either a sole principal, an employee, a director, partner in or member of the organisation”.

The judge said Ms Onwuka told the tribunal that this was “not true”, but “did not provide any explanation as to why she would mislead the Legal Aid Agency in this way”.

Clifton Law gave up the housing and debt legal aid contract in January 2020, after which Mr Okunniga resigned from the role of supervisor.

“The respondent’s evidence was that this was the first time the claimant had referred to himself as being employed and I neither saw nor heard anything to contradict this.”

Judge Miller said the day before the “resignation”, Mr Okunniga “clearly believed” he was an “independent contractor”.

The judge concluded that consultancy agreement Mr Okunniga signed with the law firm in September “accurately reflected the whole of his working relationship”.