Law firm to pay £19k for unfairly dismissing pregnant paralegal

Tribunal: Redundancy was genuine, process less so

A law firm has been ordered to pay damages of nearly £19,000 for unfairly dismissing a pregnant paralegal after going through a tick-box redundancy exercise.

Though Farzana Yasin’s pregnancy was not the primary reason she was let go by Bolton firm Swift Lawyers, it was a factor in the way her redundancy was handled, said Employment Judge Dunlop in Manchester.

In 2017 the firm sought to pivot away from personal injury and Ms Yasin joined to work on cavity wall insulation claims. She was a law graduate who had completed the legal practice course.

She had two consecutive maternity leave periods from October 2018, during which time little work was done on the cavity wall files as the firm waited for the outcome of other cases.

She returned to work in November 2020 and was put on furlough when a new lockdown began in January 2021, with the firm’s litigation work quiet. Soon after, she revealed that she was pregnant again.

In the following weeks, the firm decided to stop its cavity wall work and make Ms Yasin redundant.

The tribunal found that redundancy was the genuine reason for her dismissal and that she was not selected for redundancy because of her pregnancy: “She was selected because she was in a ‘pool of one’ as the only employee directly affected by the decision not to progress with the [cavity wall] files.”

However, the tribunal held that Swift Lawyers did not engage in a “genuine and meaningful consultation” – Ms Yasin was informally told she was going to be made redundant and the process that followed was a “box-ticking exercise” for a decision which was “already final”. She was dismissed in March 2021.

“Particularly in circumstances where an employee has been absent from the business during furlough, they cannot be assumed to have the same knowledge as the employer about conditions ‘on the ground’ in the business,” the tribunal said.

“An open dialogue about the need for redundancies, as well as the basis for selection, when the proposals are at a formative stage, rather than when they are ‘a done deal’, is likely to prevent the sort of suspicions and misconceptions which have arisen in this case.”

The tribunal also found that the firm fell short in its attempts to find Ms Yasin suitable alternative employment, in contrast to a personal injury colleague who was found other opportunities within the business when his work was drying up.

“More specifically, we reject the respondent’s evidence that there was no role available in the conveyancing department,” Judge Dunlop went on.

Conveyancing “represented the future of the firm” and it was “positioning itself to attract, and carry out, as much work as possible in this area”.

A solicitor was recruited as a conveyancing assistant in June 2021 and by not offering Ms Yasin this role – or at least exploring the possibility with her – “the respondent failed in its obligation to give due consideration to whether there was suitable alternative employment” for her.

For these two reasons, the dismissal was unfair.

The tribunal said there was a 65% chance that she would have accepted the role and successfully moved into it before taking her maternity leave, meaning her compensation would be reduced by 35%.

While she was not dismissed primarily because of pregnancy, it did not mean this played “no part at all in the decision to dismiss”, the tribunal continued.

“We consider that Ms Yasin has proven facts from which it is possible to conclude, in the absence of an alternative explanation from the respondent, that both the respondent’s failure to engage in genuine and meaningful consultation, and its failure to consider Ms Yasin for the role of conveyancing assistant were on the grounds of her pregnancy (and/or on the grounds that she was seeking to take maternity leave).”

These included the high regard in which she was held and how she had already shown her ability to adapt to a new area of work with the cavity wall cases.

Further, there would have been “an almost immediate need to backfill” her conveyancing work, had she taken the role, due to her starting maternity leave.

The firm was “not interested in seeking ways to avoid the redundancy” and was “not open and transparent” with Ms Yasin about developments in the conveyancing department, telling her it did not need to recruit an assistant, only to do so soon after.

“We consider that those circumstances give rise to an inference that Ms Yasin would have been treated differently if she had not been pregnant…

“Although pregnancy was not the immediate cause of Ms Yasin’s dismissal… her pregnancy played a part in the respondent’s decision to dismiss, albeit that it was not the sole or principal reason for the dismissal.”

At the remedy hearing, the tribunal order Swift Lawyers to pay Ms Yasin £15,000 plus interest for injury to feelings plus another £1,000 in loss of earnings.

There was no basic award in respect of the unfair dismissal claim as this was extinguished by her redundancy payment. The firm was ordered to pay a total of £18,800.

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