“Minor error” dooms senior clerk’s unfair dismissal claim

Employment: Judge refuses to overturn decision

A senior clerk at a London barristers’ chambers cannot bring an unfair dismissal claim because of a “minor error” meaning that it was out of time.

Employment Judge Snelson said Michael Johnson’s “original minor error” in mentioning only one head of chambers instead of two was “unexplained”, but “it could and should have been corrected”.

Mr Johnson, who was legally represented throughout, brought complaints of unfair and wrongful dismissal against 187 Fleet Street Chambers, the chambers of Andrew Trollope QC and Richard Christie QC.

The judge said Mr Johnson’s employment at the chambers as senior clerk for almost six years ended with summary dismissal in August 2018.

The statutory time limit to present a claim for unfair and wrongful dismissal case is three months, less a day, after the effective termination date. This could be extended under the ACAS early conciliation provisions.

Judge Snelson said ACAS was notified in August 2018 and an ACAS certificate issued, but it wrongly referred to the prospective defendant as “the Chambers of Andrew Trollope QC”, failing to mention Mr Christie.

The claimant obtained a second certificate, with the correct name of the chambers, in November 2018, and presented a claim form the following month.

Mr Johnson’s lawyers argued that the first ACAS certificate was invalid, because it wrongly named the chambers, meaning that the November certificate was the only “material” one.

Judge Snelson said he rejected the claim form at a preliminary hearing in September 2019. In citing a second ACAS certificate number, the case law was clear that it was of no effect for the purposes of the early conciliation scheme. Accordingly, the claim was defective under the employment tribunal rules.

This meant that the first ACAS certificate was the only relevant one, as the defendants argued, and the time limit for presenting Mr Johnson’s claims had expired on 12 November 2018.

Following a reconsideration on the papers in Johnson v The Chambers of Andrew Trollope QC and Richard Christie QC, Judge Snelson confirmed his earlier decision rejecting the claim form.

Counsel for the chambers argued that the clerk had been legally represented throughout and it “had plainly been reasonably practical” to present the claim in time.

Judge Snelson said the claimant could have approached ACAS to have the error in the first certificate corrected.

Alternatively, he could have repeated the error on the claim form and accompanied it with an application to amend or named the chambers correctly on the claim form and asked the tribunal to exercise its discretion not to reject.

The judge said the name of the entity against which Mr Johnson was seeking to claim, a “well-known set of chambers” in Fleet Street, was “never in doubt”.

He added: “No doubt those acting for the claimant will advise him to obtain independent advice as to whether some separate remedy may be available to him in respect of the loss of the chance to pursue his complaints of unfair and wrongful dismissal.”

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