Law firm ordered to pay £1,000 for employee’s “racist” comment

Tribunal: Regular discussions between staff

A law firm employee has been awarded damages of £1,000 after a colleague targeted him with a discriminatory comment based on his Pakistani heritage.

However, the employment tribunal in Manchester held that a series of other comments were not discriminatory because they were simply part of general discussions in a small office.

Mr M Akbar worked at Manchester personal injury law firm Virtus Law and made seven complaints of direct discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, as a Muslim of Pakistani heritage.

Only one succeeded. The claim was that, in November 2019, when Mr Akbar broke the record for settlements and was presented with a bottle of prosecco by Virtus owner Rossanna Schurink (despite being Muslim, he had told her he drank alcohol), “a senior member of the team, Sean Morley, immediately stated that the 97 Korean team had two forwards, one called Pak and another called Kee”.

Mr Morley was adamant that he had not said it, while neither Ms Schurink nor another colleague who was present said they could recall it.

“There was, in the opinion of the tribunal, therefore a significant difference between a steadfast denial on the part of Mr Morley and the comments which Mrs Shurink and Ms O’Gorman carefully made in their witness statements,” the ruling said.

The tribunal concluded that Mr Morley had made the comment because he “strongly objected to someone of the racial background of the claimant being presented with the award in this way”. There was no link to Mr Akbar’s religion.

The tribunal was highly critical of Mr Morley, saying that in the 13 minutes he gave evidence, he “presented himself in a manner which never previously had the three members of the tribunal in many, years of joint experience gained such an unfavourable view of a witness”.

It described him as “bristling with indignation” and said there was “an obvious and real sense of animosity on the part of Mr Morley towards the claimant”.

It did not believe his evidence: “Mr Morley as a witness, and in particular as a solicitor, must surely have recognised that he should override that and that he was on oath to tell the truth. The tribunal was satisfied that he had not done so.”

The tribunal accepted that several of the comments made by another staff member that Mr Akbar complained about had been made: “I have been told that Pakistani/Muslim men are paedophiles”, that Muslim Iranian men have sex with 11-year-old girls, and that her niece had been contacted by an Asian man on Facebook, “with the obvious inference was that there had been an attempt to groom her niece”.

But the tribunal said the comments were not directed at Mr Akbar – indeed, he contacted a friend to confirm the accuracy of the Iranian remark – and found them “part of a pattern of discussion” between staff.

“It was a small office environment in which there were no more than five/six people including the claimant.

“The tribunal found as a fact that there was regular discussion between those members of staff about such things as the content of TV shows and news events, and indeed the personal events in the lives of the employees in question.

“The tribunal found as a fact that the claimant participated in those discussions.”

It said staff were equally involved in these discussions and so there was “no less favourable treatment” of Mr Akbar as required by section 13 of the Equality Act 2010.

A claim that Mr Morley had stolen Mr Akbar’s car keys was dismissed as “preposterous” – the claimant produced “absolutely no evidence whatsoever to substantiate such a serious allegation”.

Further, the tribunal accepted that the motivation behind Ms Shurink sending a WhatsApp message to all staff, featuring a picture of an Asian man “dripping in gold”, had nothing to do with race or religion. “It was simply something which she found humorous in the context of panic buying of toilet rolls.”

In deciding damages, the tribunal noted that Mr Akbar had not complained at the time about the comments – even directly to Mr Morley – and that Ms Shurink was “extremely supportive” of him. He left the firm to join Clyde & Co.

“Taking all the circumstances into account and remembering that compensation was to compensate the claimant and not to punish the employer, the tribunal unanimously decided that the relevant vale of injury to feelings was £1,000.” It added interest of £155.

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