Lawyer fails in sex discrimination claim against children’s charity

Nigeria: Lawyer had health concerns

A lawyer who worked for the all-female international division of Coram Children’s Legal Centre was not a victim of sex discrimination, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Ms SA Morrison was fired less than a month into her employment because she was unwilling to travel to certain countries where both malaria and the Zika virus were present as they would make her plans to become pregnant difficult.

The employment tribunal in central London found that Coram International was entitled to dismiss her because international travel was an integral part of her job.

Ms Morrison had been recruited to an international research officer’s post – even though she lacked formal research qualifications or experience – because she was a lawyer with relevant experience.

Employment Judge Emma Burns in Central London recorded that a key deciding factor which led Coram to offer her the role was that she had experience of working abroad and was willing to travel, which was an important part of the job.

Shortly after starting the job, she told Coram that she was trying to start a family and it would be “particularly challenging” on health grounds for her to travel to countries like Nigeria, where both malaria and the Zika virus were present; women are also not advised to take antimalarial medication when trying to conceive.

Professor Dame Carolyn Hamilton, the director of Coram International, wanted Ms Morrison to work with her on a project in Nigeria because it needed someone with technical legal expertise.

Professor Hamilton emailed a colleague that she had heard Ms Morrison sigh as she read an email telling her about the project, as she had originally been assigned to one in Kazakhstan. “But then why take this job?” she added.

In response to another email saying that Ms Morrison had not raised any concerns about international travel at her interview, Professor Hamilton wrote: “Yes indeed – we have been taken for a complete ride!”

In a later email, she said: “We have no work for somebody who will not travel… It just seems to me that she came into the job with the intention of not fulfilling the job spec.”

Just over two weeks after Ms Morrison had started working at Coram, Professor Hamilton dismissed her and paid in lieu of her entitlement to a week’s notice.

Ms Morrison then said she would travel to Nigeria “if it meant she could keep her job”, but Professor Hamilton was not prepared to change her mind as she envisaged the problem would arise repeatedly.

The lawyer accused Coram of direct sex discrimination in sacking her because she was a woman and/or because she could become pregnant in the near future.

In terms of indirect discrimination, Ms Morrison alleged that were was a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) in place at the charity which required staff to “undertake international travel where and when requested without discussion”.

Judge Burns said Ms Morrison relied on a hypothetical comparator with a male member of staff “because Coram International did not employ any men”.

A man would have had “similar, albeit not exactly the same, concerns about travel and safe conception” and the tribunal said there was “no evidence” that Ms Morrison’s manager would have acted any differently with a male employee.

Professor Hamilton’s suggestion at the dismissal meeting that the lawyer should go away and have children, and return to this type of work afterwards, was an attempt at reassurance drawing on her personal experience, and that she would have said the same to a male employee.

The charity had established that the reason for the lawyer’s dismissal was not because she “might get pregnant in the near future”, and therefore cause the charity difficulties.

“Instead, the reason for the claimant’s dismissal was because it needed someone to travel straight away in the short and medium term to certain countries and believed that she was refusing to do this.”

Although Coram could choose for which projects it submitted bids, the duration of the tender process meant that the programme of work was effectively determined around 12 months in advance “and staff had to go where they were assigned.”

The tribunal found that the charity had a PCP in place that researchers “were expected to undertake international travel where and when requested” – not “without discussion” as Ms Morrison alleged, but with “minimal” discussion.

“We consider that the respondent has objectively justified the PCP with the outcome that there was no unlawful discrimination of the claimant.”

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