A law firm’s failure to help a self-employed consultant solicitor bill tens of thousands of pounds of work was due to error and not discrimination, an employment tribunal has ruled.
It said the notion that Sinclairslaw would deprive itself of substantial income so as to discriminate against Ms J Williams was “inherently unlikely and incredible”.
Earlier this year, a different tribunal held that Ms Williams fell within the definition of an employee for the purposes of claims for sex and age discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, but not for an unfair dismissal claim.
A family law specialist, Ms Williams qualified in 1985 and was an equity partner at another firm before joining Sinclairslaw in 2010 on the basis she was self-employed and would receive 37% of the fees she generated.
In March 2022, she twice complained that she had been unable to bill due to a lack of secretarial support but receive no response to her emails from partner Greg Evans.
She said this deprived her for £30-40,000 of income and meant she had not been paid for three months, which Judge DS McLeese in Cardiff said meant the law firm missed out on more than £50,000.
He continued: “[Mr Evans] either skimmed the email and did not action it or intended to go back to it and did not. He accepted this in his evidence and the tribunal found his evidence credible and human in admitting a significant omission on his part.”
His actions were “commercially… detrimental” to the firm.
Ms Williams was offered billing support at the end of April 2022, before the firm knew about her filing the claim.
She contended that she was ignored as Sinclairslaw thought she may have been winding down towards retirement – due to gossip in the office – and/or because she was a woman.
But the tribunal rejected this, finding that Mr Evans’ actions were not motivated by her sex or age.
“There is no evidence before the tribunal and certainly none that this tribunal finds points to the claimant’s sex or age having had anything at all to do with the way in which the email was dealt with or the inaction after its receipt.”
The tribunal accepted that the way Ms Williams was treated in having her emails ignored would have been “extremely annoying and probably upsetting”, but unfair or unreasonable treatment on its own was not enough.
“We further find that ignoring the emails was commercially nonsensical as it was costing the firm a considerable amount of money but it was not because of the claimant’s age or sex.”
It was “inherently unlikely and incredible” that Mr Evans directly discriminated against her and in doing so “chose not to enable the respondent company to receive significant amounts of money due to it”.
The tribunal also criticised inaccuracies in Ms Williams’ witness statement. “Her explanations that she had always been reliant on secretarial support and that she had had no professional training was not credible as an explanation for the errors.
“She accepted she has had to approve drafts of witness statements before and that it is important that they are accurate.
“She also did not answer some questions directly. We find that to be because of deficiencies in her case.”