Solicitor fired after announcing pregnancy awarded £26k damages

Pregnancy: Solicitor blind-sided and upset by dismissal

A solicitor has been awarded damages of £26,475 after her law firm withdrew an offer of promotion and four weeks later summarily dismissed her because she was pregnant

Judge Arullendran said the employment tribunal in Newcastle did not accept that Mrs M Dobson was fired because County Durham firm Michael Cook Law Firm was in financial difficulties.

She had joined the small, two-office practice in August 2022 as its only residential conveyancer. She worked three days a week and was paid £21,000 (pro rata £35,000).

On 26 January 2023, the eponymous Mr Cook, the sole director, told Mrs Dobson that he was impressed with her work and asked her to become a director.

Negotiations around salary continued over the next few days but on 1 February Mrs Dobson revealed that she was nine weeks pregnant, while stressing that she was still interested in becoming a director. Mr Cook responded that he would have to “leave it”.

The tribunal said there had been no indication up to that point that the offer might be withdrawn and did not accept that it was because of the lack of agreement on salary.

“We find that, due to the proximity in time between the disclosure of the pregnancy and the respondents’ change of mind, they were materially influenced by the claimant’s pregnancy and we find that the withdrawal of the offer of promotion was because of the claimant’s pregnancy.”

Four weeks later, Mrs Dobson was dismissed with immediate effect and without warning, and paid one week’s wages in lieu of notice; the reasons given were the economic climate and lack of work to support her position.

The firm did not provide Mrs Dobson with the means to appeal against the decision

Judge Arullendran said: “The respondents did not consider anyone else as at risk of redundancy and the respondents did not carry out any assessment of the workforce prior to making the decision to dismiss the claimant.

“The respondents knew about the claimant’s pregnancy and had decided not to promote her to the position of director because of her pregnancy and this demonstrated that the respondents were consciously, or unconsciously, motivated by the claimant pregnancy in their decision-making process.

“In those circumstances, we find that the there are primary facts from which we can conclude that the reason for the claimant’s dismissal was because of her pregnancy.”

That shifted the burden of proof to the firm, which the tribunal found it failed to discharge, even though there was some evidence that it was facing a loss in the financial year and had been cutting costs.

The judge said: “There was no financial evidence from the [firm] demonstrating the financial performance of the firm in previous years and, therefore, there was no evidence to corroborate the respondent’s assertion that a dire financial situation existed in February 2023 which necessitated immediate action resulting in the summary dismissal of the claimant.”

The tribunal also found that the firm and Mr Cook unreasonably failed to comply with the ACAS code on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

They did not consult Mrs Dobson before she was dismissed and an HR consultant used by the firm when she sought to appeal “failed to carry out a proper investigation and failed to hold a meeting with the claimant before reaching a conclusion on the appeal”. This meant a 20% uplift on the loss of earnings.

“Both the respondents and the external consultant took the view that, because the claimant had less than two years continuous service, they did not have to follow any kind of proper process or procedure.

“It would have been a relatively simple matter to consult the ACAS website and to adopt and apply a basic but fair procedure before making any decisions about the claimant’s employment and before dealing with the claimant’s appeal and no explanation has been provided about why a firm of solicitors and a HR specialist failed to undertake such a simple task.”

The tribunal accepted Mrs Dobson’s evidence that she was blind-sided and upset by the decision to dismiss her and the manner in which it was done, although she was not upset at the time about the withdrawal of the offer to become a director.

“The claimant was upset by the dismissal, so much so that she could not think about looking for alternative work for approximately two months. Her appetite was non-existent and she was worried about her baby.

“The claimant felt that she did not have a reason to get up in the mornings and the period after her dismissal was one of the darkest times in her life.”

The tribunal awarded £12,000 for injury to feelings and a similar sum for loss of earnings. With interest, the total damages were £26,475.

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