Pregnant trainee fails in claim over no post-qualification job offer

Claim: Decision was taken months before directors knew trainee was pregnant

A solicitor who claimed she was not offered a job after completing her training contract because she was pregnant has lost her discrimination claim in the employment tribunal.

The tribunal in Watford found that the two directors of northern home counties criminal and prison law practice Lawtons had made the decision not to keep on Kelly Blake after qualifying several months before they knew she was pregnant.

Ms Blake, 43 this year, worked as a paralegal at Lawtons for three and a half years before starting a training contract – reduced in length to 18 months because of her experience – in July 2016.

She was told in November 2017 that she would not be offered a post as a newly qualified solicitor, less than a month after she notified the firm that she was pregnant.

The tribunal accepted that, given the pressures of working in the legal aid system, the firm operated “an informal management system, in which the two directors spoke and were in constant communication with each other, but did not routinely record decisions or outcomes in writing”.

It found that their management of fee-earning staff “contained a large element of learning by observation, with fee-earning staff sharing communal work spaces and areas, and working on each other’s files”.

Ms Blake became pregnant in late April 2017 and the tribunal found that this was the time that directors Nick Titchener and Stephen Halloran decided they would not keep her on when her training contract ended on 3 January 2018.

There was another trainee qualifying at the same time whom the directors considered “exceptionally able” and the tribunal found that, if there were to be an appointment at the beginning of 2018, it would be her.

“Equally but separately they formed the view that they did not want to retain the claimant. These were two separate conclusions, and they implied a third one, which was that if [the other trainee] were offered a post, and turned it down, the directors would not then appoint the claimant.”

They decided not to tell Ms Blake at this stage out of concern that “to do so would demotivate further a trainee solicitor who (they felt) already had manifested limitations”, the tribunal said.

However, several members of staff testified that the directors told them of their intention.

“It follows that her pregnancy could not have been within the knowledge of either decision maker, and therefore pregnancy played no part whatsoever in the decision to dismiss her. Her claim fails.”

It ordered Ms Blake to pay Lawtons £3,000 in costs on the basis that, by late March 2019 at the latest, it should have been clear to her on an “objective analysis of the witness evidence” that her claim had no reasonable prospect of success

In an unusual final observation, the tribunal noted that both Ms Blake and the other trainee had not qualified in the traditional way, instead working for years in other capacities in the law.

“At the heart of the case therefore is the achievement of two solicitors at the start of their qualified careers, to whom this tribunal wishes well in pursuit of those careers.

“We add that the traditional hurdles and biases which faced entrants to the legal profession did not arise spontaneously: they were the produce of years of bias or prejudice by the then leaders of the profession.

“It is entirely to the credit of this respondent [Lawtons], and its directors, that they have provided the pathway to the claimant and Ms Canavan, and no doubt others, towards legal qualification, without the slightest regard to any of the traditional sources of bias or prejudice.

“The achievement of the two women is therefore not just their own individual achievement, but owes much to the support which both received towards qualification.”

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