Law firm must pay £13k for head of family’s constructive dismissal


Employment dispute: No evidence for allegations made by firm

A law firm that tried to change its head of family’s bonus scheme without notice and failed to promote her as agreed must pay her almost £13,000 for breach of contract and constructive dismissal, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Judge Paula Volkmer dismissed all the allegations made by Lawcomm Solicitors against Sarah Lightfoot-Webber to try and reduce the damages, including “very serious allegations” relating to billing and accounts procedures.

In the liability ruling earlier this year, the judge held that the Hampshire and London law firm had not only constructively dismissed Ms Lightfoot-Webber, but fundamentally breached her contract.

She was employed from September 2017 as a family law executive, later being promoted to head of family law. Under a bonus scheme, she was paid 33% of the net billing above her target in a quarter.

In April 2021, in countering another job offer, the firm told Ms Lightfoot-Webber that, once she qualified as a chartered legal executive, she would be promoted to director. She became a CILEX Fellow three months later but was not promoted.

In March 2022, the firm sought to change the terms of her bonus so that it was based on payments received in a quarter, rather than billings, after a month in which she had billed £20,000 but the firm had only received £6,362 of it.

Ms Lightfoot-Webber objected but was told that, under its terms, the scheme was discretionary and could be altered with immediate effect.

She resigned in June 2022, saying she was owed £7,000 from the first quarter of 2022, and that she considered herself to be constructively dismissed.

In the newly published remedy ruling, Judge Volkmer said the law firm agreed that Ms Lightfoot-Webber should be paid a basic award of £3,426, but argued that it should be reduced because of her conduct.

The firm claimed that Ms Lightfoot-Webber had breached confidentiality obligations by discussing her bonus situation with other members of staff.

The judge said the allegation was not proven because it was “not clear what the claimant is alleged to have said, to whom and when”.

The evidence was “vague and it is apparent that it is based on hearsay evidence from ‘members of staff’ who have not been identified” – nor had it been put to Ms Lightfoot-Webber in cross-examination.

Lawcomm accused the CILEX fellow of failing to come into the office and attend meetings in 2022.

She responded that she had been allowed  to work from home “without any criticism at all” because she had an autistic daughter, and it was only when she started to complain about the bonus that the law firm said it did not want her to work from home.

The judge said the allegation was not made in cross-examination and there was “simply not enough evidence” on which to make a finding that her failure to attend the office amounted to a breach of contract.

A further allegation of “inappropriate conduct”, in which Ms Lightfoot-Webber was alleged to have described the firm’s IT system as “crap”, was also dismissed.

The law firm alleged that Ms Lightfoot-Webber had caused it financial loss by breaching accounts procedures and Solicitors Regulation Authority rules.

Dismissing them, Judge Volkmer described these as “very serious allegations which are put without being sufficiently supported by the evidence before the tribunal”.

She also dismissed claims that the lawyer had caused support staff “to be upset and leave” and solicited the firm’s clients.

In the absence of any “blameworthy conduct”, the judge made reductions to the claimant’s basic award of £3,426. To this she added £617 for lost earnings, £500 for loss of statutory rights and a 10% uplift on these two sums for a breach of the ACAS code by the law firm.

Judge Volkmer made a further award of £1,188 because the law firm, which “purports to specialise in employment law” had not explained to Ms Lightfoot-Webber that her employer had changed after a TUPE transfer.

The final part of the claimant’s award was the bonus of £7,036 she should have been paid, had the law firm not breached her contract, bringing the combined total of her award to just under £12,900.




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