Law firm unfairly dismissed long-serving staff member

Tribunal: Partner’s behaviour was unconscious

A police station representative at a North-East law firm was unfairly constructively dismissed after having problems with the partner who supervised her.

Employment Judge Sweeney in Newcastle found that a course of conduct on the part of The Richmond Partnership, based in Chester le Street, seriously damaged the relationship of trust and confidence with Charlotte Rose O’Neill, who had worked at the firm for 13 years.

He described Ms O’Neill’s relationship with partner Suzanne Hanson, one of the firm’s three partners and its head of crime, as being “at the heart of these proceedings”.

He found that both were “forceful” characters but “generally got on reasonably well”.

However, “when Ms Hanson was in a bad mood – which tended to coincide with whether she was having a good day at work or a bad day – she manifested this in her demeanour leaving the claimant feeling intimidated by her and reluctant to approach her for fear of being criticised.”

The judge said that, while some managers were good at not letting pressure or ‘bad days’ affect how they dealt with staff, “it is my impression that Ms Hanson is not one of those people”, even if her behaviour was unconscious.

“It explains how the claimant, a popular, hard-working and long-serving member of staff regarded her as difficult and unapproachable.”

The judge said additional pressure Ms Hanson felt under in 2022, when there were staffing issues in the department which left her with more work, “led to more ‘bad days’ than had been the case in the past and that this adversely affected her mood”.

But Judge Sweeney was clear that Ms Hanson’s behaviour fell well short of bullying. “At its highest, my findings lead me to the conclusion that she can fluctuate in mood and that she cannot keep her bad moods to herself…

“At most Ms Hanson would ‘huff and puff’ so to speak and could at times exude an air of being irritated and unapproachable… [She] was insensitive to the effect her bad moods had on the staff.”

But there were three actions that led to Ms O’Neill succeeding in her claim.

The first was Ms Hanson stating more than once that she had no desire to continue with criminal law and wanted instead to focus instead on care work that she also handled.

These comments “unsettled” Ms O’Neill and “made her concerned for her future” – the judge did not accept Ms Hanson’s claim that she had reassured Ms O’Neill that she was joking. Rather, they were likely to “dent” the relationship of trust and confidence.

Whilst it was “perfectly understandable that Ms Hanson might from time to time be frustrated and somewhat stressed by bureaucracies of the Legal Aid Agency and the pressures of a criminal law practice, it was not reasonable or proper behaviour for the head of department to voice those frustrations in the way that she did and without then reassuring the claimant.”

In mid-January 2023, concerned about Ms Hanson’s behaviour towards her – including putting the phone down on her on one occasion – Ms O’Neill asked to speak to the firm’s other two partners. “This was, on any analysis, an informal grievance,” the judge found.

However, the partners had not come back to her by the time she resigned a fortnight later, a delay for which there was “no reasonable and proper cause”. This was another “dent”.

The trigger for Ms O’Neill’s resignation was a demand for her to return the firm’s “on-call” mobile phone.

It was for whichever member of the criminal team was on-call for the police station duty rota but, as this had become Ms O’Neill most of the time, she had retained it and used it for the rest of her work too.

Being on call “generated a substantial financial benefit” to Ms O’Neill and removing it “without any initial explanation and then to be followed up with what she regarded as a half-hearted and disingenuous excuse sent out a message to her that she was not valued”, Judge Sweeney said.

The excuse was that the firm wanted to monitor the use of external police station representatives but the judge found there were other ways it could have done this.

The real reason was “to send a message to her personally, that Ms Hanson was in control of events and that she did not think much of her concerns”.

“In any event, even if the genuine reason for removing the on-call phone was to monitor calls in ‘real time’, the way in which the respondent went about this without any discussion, considered objectively was likely to and did have the effect of seriously damaging trust and confidence.”

He added that, even if the incident itself did not have this effect, the cumulative impact of the conduct did.

The judge also decided that the firm’s failure to comply with the ACAS code, by not carrying out an investigation into Ms O’Neill’s grievance, meant that any award made at the remedy hearing should be increased by 15%.

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