Solicitor sacked over order to move offices wins tribunal claim

Employment: Contractual right to relocate

A solicitor has won her claim for wrongful dismissal after being sacked by a law firm for pushing back against a direction to relocate with immediate effect to another office.

The employment tribunal held that HRS Family Law Solicitors did not give Fiona Tsang a chance to explain why she did not want to move to its Walsall office from Dudley.

Ms Tsang began working at the firm in March 2020. She applied only to work at the Dudley office for personal reasons, although the firm did not know this.

However, her contract gave the firm the right to require her to work out of a different office and there was no notice requirement before doing so.

At noon on Friday 9 October, managing director Clive Rebbeck called Ms Tsang to tell her she was moving to supervise the Walsall office from the Monday.

There was a second telephone conversation at 5pm, during which Ms Tsang made it clear that, for a variety of reasons including the school run, she was uncomfortable with the move.

On the Monday, she went as usual to the Dudley office and continued with her existing workload.

Ms Tsang did not return Mr Rebbeck’s messages to call him, explaining by email that she had been very upset by the conversation on Friday and wanted to continue the dialogue by email instead.

She also raised her concern that she lacked the experience to effectively supervise the Walsall office.

Employment Judge Gaskell observed: “Whilst clearly, the directors of business have the right to run the business as they see fit, the claimant, as a qualified solicitor, has a professional obligation to ensure that she is properly experienced to undertake work allocated to her.”

In response, the firm’s practice manager went to the Dudley office and summarily dismissed her; Ms Tsang’s evidence was that she was told this was because Mr Rebbeck did not like her emails, but the judge said the reason did not matter.

She said the first mention of dismissal for gross misconduct came several days later when she attempted to agree what her final salary payment would be.

Ms Tsang argued before the tribunal that it was not serious misconduct for her simply to fail to move immediately without further discussion or proper warning, or without a disciplinary meeting.

The firm said her refusal amounted to a fundamental breach of contract and she could properly be summarily dismissed.

Judge Gaskell agreed with Ms Tsang – though there was a clear contractual right to require her to move, “it must be implied that the respondent would act after proper consultation and proper consideration of an employee’s concerns before enforcing that contract”.

Ms Tsang had not refused outright to speak to Mr Rebbeck, he added, and had not acted in fundamental breach of her contract – she was not demonstrating no intention to be bound by her contract in the future. “Indeed, that morning she had attended Dudley office and got on with her work.”

The judge continued: “The overwhelming requirement is for Mr Rebbeck to go to Dudley office; either him or somebody with his authority; and meet the claimant in a calm environment and discuss the issues.

“If that had been done, and a considered decision then taken that the claimant was nevertheless required at Walsall, then refusal might properly have amounted to an indication of a refusal to be bound by the contract. But that, in my judgement, was not the case as of Monday 12 October 2020.

“Accordingly, if the respondent decided to dismiss the claimant on that day, it needed to dismiss her with her full contractual notice.”

As a result, Ms Tsang was entitled to two months of net salary, holiday pay and pension contributions, uplifted by 25% because of the firm’s failure “at every stage” to deal with the matter in accordance with the ACAS code. This totalled £6,075 net.

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