Lockdown conveyancing redundancy was genuine, tribunal rules

Tribunal: Firm tried to find alternative role

A redundancy exercise run by a law firm in its conveyancing department following the first lockdown in 2020 was genuine, an employment tribunal has ruled.

It rejected the unfair dismissal claim brought by Jean Barends, who had worked at Cambridgeshire firm Adlams since 2001 as a legal secretary but whose work had expanded to that of a conveyancing assistant.

Employment Judge Wood in Bury St Edmunds recounted that, in the wake of the housing industry shutting down following the lockdown, all but one member of the conveyancing team was placed on furlough and a decision taken to replace the three part-time employees, including Ms Barends, with a new full-time role of conveyancing assistant (called the ‘NCA’ in the ruling).

This job had elements of her existing job but the different skills and abilities required made its remit “significantly wider”.

Ms Barends was put on notice of the risk of redundancy and made aware of three potential roles: the NCA, a family department paralegal and an afternoon receptionist.

Her role was made redundant and she agreed to trial the post of afternoon receptionist on the basis she could later trial the NCA role or take redundancy.

At the end of the trial, Ms Barends decided against taking the receptionist post or applying to be the NCA. She appealed unsuccessfully against her dismissal.

Ms Barends asserted that she was pushed out “on the false pretence that there was a redundancy situation”.

The employment tribunal disagreed, finding little in the complaints she made about her treatment.

Judge Wood held that it was a genuine redundancy situation, not least because Mrs Barends in cross-examination agreed that the pandemic “had been a disaster for the housing sectors, and in particular, the conveyancing activities of firms of solicitors”.

Adlams’ desire to reorganise the conveyancing department to save costs and focus resources was “a justified and genuine exercise”.

The judge found that Ms Barends had a “tendency to perceive events through an emotionally sensitive prism. As a result, it is my view that her account of certain events, and their interpretation, has to be treated cautiously”.

There was a meeting with the salaried partner who ran the conveyancing department at which the partner indicated that she wanted someone with more experience for the NCA role and thought Ms Barends better suited to the receptionist post.

It was “unwise” for the partner to have expressed such a view, the judge said, but for Ms Barends to refuse to trial for the NCA post and to co-operate any further with the process was “disproportionate and unreasonable”.

Judge Wood said: “I am afraid it was a characteristically emotive reaction from the claimant, albeit that can readily extends her some latitude in such difficult circumstances.”

Further, the impression given in the meeting was later corrected by a more senior partner.

The firm actually went “to some lengths” to keep her, the judge went on. “I find that she was a respected member of staff, and had skills and experience which were highly regarded by management. This in part, explains why she was employed for 20 years, and why her duties had far exceeded her original job title.”

Indeed, Ms Barends was in “a strong position” to be appointed as the NCA, “and had she looked at the situation objectively and calmly, she would have appreciated this…

“The fact that a relatively unqualified former estate agent was eventually appointed rather supports that proposition.”

Judge Wood concluded: “The claimant was dismissed on the grounds of redundancy and that the process that the respondent adopted was reasonable and fair in the circumstances. In other words, the claimant was fairly dismissed.”

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