Law firm wrong to make solicitor pay for training course

Employment: Solicitor did not have contract initially

A law firm made an unlawful deduction of wages when it took £1,700 from the salary of a sacked solicitor turned office manager to cover the cost of a training course, an employment judge has ruled.

However, a claim of unfair dismissal made by Samera Shah against Bolton law firm Seth Law was struck out on the grounds that she had not worked there for two years.

Ruling on the deduction of wages, Employment Judge Feeney said Ms Shah was recruited as a fee-earner, mainly for personal injury work, in September 2017, and was appointed office manager in March 2018.

Ms Shah was told her pay would increase to £19,000 from June 2018 and the firm would pay for her to take a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development course in HR, which she had requested.

The course began in September 2018 and the law firm started making monthly payments towards the cost.

But the tribunal recorded that, in February 2019, Ms Shah was “off sick and it appears that while she was off sick something was reported to [the firm’s principal, Samira Seth] that the claimant had said about a client and Ms Seth which was in the earshot of members of the public at lunchtime”.

Ms Seth stated this was why the claimant was dismissed. Ms Shah’s final payslip showed that £1,700 had been deducted for the training costs.

Ms Shah argued that Seth Law had no contractual right to make the deduction and that she had never received a contract. Further, she said she had never seen a letter of May 2018 which set out that her training costs would be deducted if she ceased employment.

Ms Seth said Ms Shah had been given a contract at the start of her employment, but she “was not able to produce such a contract, either electronically or on paper”, Judge Feeney noted.

Ms Seth told the tribunal “this was because they had fallen out with their previous HR provider”, who had stored these contracts, and they were “being refused access” to electronic copies.

“Ms Seth maintained that there were paper copies in each employee’s personnel folder but no such paper copies were produced as a sample.”

She “also asserted” that Ms Shah’s contract was missing because “she had removed it herself” or “not put it in the folder herself”, which was her responsibility as office manager.

Judge Feeney said he instead accepted Ms Shah’s evidence that the previous office manager had “talked about giving her a contract” but had never actually provided one for the fee-earner role.

A contract was finally sent to Ms Shah in October 2018, but it only provided that the firm could recoup the money if the claimant owed it to them at the point she left.

The judge said this meant that the question of whether Ms Shah was given the letter in May 2018 was “extremely important”.

He said he could not accept that it was; while he found there was some discussion about the recoupment clause during the meeting at which Ms Shad was told she had passed her probationary period as office manager, Judge Feeney concluded that Ms Seth “overlooked providing a copy of the letter to the claimant”.

It also seemed “implausible” that its contents would not be mentioned in her dismissal letter if it had been.

Ms Seth argued that it was implausible that she would not be telling the truth, given the reputational damage that could ensue, but Judge Feeney said he “could not just rely on that assertion”.

He added: “In addition, it was not necessarily the case that a party was lying to me, but they may have forgotten some information or recalled things erroneously.”

Though Ms Shah said she had not received the October contract when in fact she had, the judge said “this has been the only issue in my mind that has cast doubt on the claimant’s credibility. I have accepted her explanation of the other matters raised”.

He concluded that the fact that the letter was not handed over meant the provision in the October contract referring to sums ‘owed’ by the employee was not triggered.

As a result, Seth Law did not have authority to make the deduction and Ms Shah’s claim succeeded. Judge Feeney ordered the law firm to pay her £1,700.

In an earlier ruling, Employment Judge Sherratt struck out Ms Shah’s claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that she had not been employed by Seth Law for two years.

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