Paralegal was unfairly dismissed over unpaid wages complaint

Tribunal: Paralegal’s evidence preferred

A paralegal who believed she was a trainee solicitor was unfairly dismissed by her law firm employer because she complained about an unauthorised deduction of wages, an employment tribunal has found.

Nicolette Browne-Marke was awarded nearly £19,000 in compensation but this was reduced to £14,000 because of the statutory cap limiting damages to a year’s salary.

NR Legal Solicitors was also ordered to pay her a further £1,750 in underpaid salary and unpaid holiday.

Employment Judge McLaren at the East London Tribunal Centre said the law firm – which has offices in East London and Ilford, Essex – produced little documentary evidence to support its position.

By contrast, Ms Browne-Marke, who worked for the firm from January 2019 to March 2020 and represented herself, “gave a consistent account throughout and supported her evidence with relevant contemporaneous documents”.

The judge said that, where there was a dispute – as there was on most points – she preferred the claimant’s account.

This included her claim that she was told she would be offered a training contract after three months if her performance was satisfactory.

She said she only become aware after her dismissal that director Denise Baker had told staff that she had not registered her training contract with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Ms Baker told the tribunal that Ms Browne-Marke was never told she was a trainee, but the judge preferred the paralegal’s account.

“The offer letter clearly stated that after three months’ satisfactory performance the claimant would be given a training contract. The claimant had already passed the LPC and was extremely keen to complete her training… I find the claimant was told she was a trainee solicitor.”

Ms Baker accepted that payment of the claimant’s wages was “not always as smooth as it could be”.

The tribunal said: “She was not paid her salary in one lump sum into her bank account, sometimes she would be paid part of it in cash and payments were made intermittently.

“The bundle contains some texts from the claimant to Ms Baker pointing out that she did not have enough funds for example to pay her bus fare, to pay her train fare to get to court or general travel money.”

Ms Browne-Marke was summarily dismissed two weeks after lockdown began last year and four days after she emailed both Ms Baker and another director at the firm’s other branch about a shortfall in her wages and asking when it would be paid.

Judge McLaren found that the firm gave “a muddled and contradictory account as to its reasons for dismissal”, but noted that, in an exchange of letters afterwards, it did not “address or refute the claimant’s allegation that Ms Baker had told her that she was annoyed by the complaint of 19 March”.

The judge continued: “Based on this inconsistent evidence I conclude that in fact the reason or principal reason for dismissal was the 19 March complaint.

“The dismissal was not for any act of misconduct, but for raising a complaint and therefore I also conclude that there was no right to summarily dismiss the claimant.”

Ms Browne-Marke also succeeded in her claims for breach of contract for failure to pay notice and over the failure to provide employment particulars as required by the Employment Rights Act 1996,

The firm argued that the paralegal took unauthorised leave over Christmas 2019, but the evidence did not support this. “If an employee does not attend for work, I would expect urgent and timely enquires to be made. None were made,” the judge said.

Ms Browne-Marke also made reasonable efforts to mitigate her loss, the tribunal found, accepting her evidence “as to the current state of the job market and the difficulty in obtaining legal roles”.

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