Solicitor’s complaint over unfair work allocation “faces problems”

Tribunal: Firm appeared focused on solicitor’s performance issues

A solicitor who says he made a protected disclosure about the unfair allocation of work at his former firm has been told he will struggle to prove his unfair dismissal claim.

Employment Judge McDonald in Manchester said the evidence indicated that Mr M Broomhead’s dismissal was for performance issues instead.

The hearing was to consider Mr Broomhead’s application for interim relief, which the judge had to reject for want of jurisdiction – this was because the solicitor had brought the claim against Peninsula Business Services Ltd when it should have been Peninsula Legal Services Ltd t/a Irwell Law.

Though the judge substituted the latter as the respondents, it meant Mr Broomhead was out of time to seek interim relief.

Peninsula nonetheless asked Judge McDonald to set out what his ruling – a summary assessment, not findings of fact – would have been.

Mr Broomhead was an assistant solicitor at Irwell Law – the Manchester-based alternative business structure set up by the well-known employment law and HR services company – for a year to August 2023.

He claims that he told the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) that another solicitor had arranged with the trainee who allocated work to give them the higher paying cases, leaving the rest – which Mr Broomhead described as “the rubbish” – for him and the other fee-earners.

Mr Broomhead says this was in breach of the SRA code of conduct.

“The allocation of work was important because it partly determined the billable hours and fees which each fee-earner could generate,” the judge explained.

The solicitor was dismissed with three months’ notice that day but a week later was summarily dismissed on grounds of gross misconduct, specifically insubordination and breach of confidentiality. Mr Broomhead contends that those grounds were fabricated.

He argued there was a public interest element in his disclosure because it concerned the conduct of a solicitor.

Irwell countered that Mr Broomhead’s “real issue was that work was being allocated unfairly between the respondent’s fee-earners, leading to the claimant being challenged and subjected to what was effectively a disciplinary process because his billable hours were low”.

To succeed, Mr Broomhead has to show is he had a genuine belief at the time the disclosure was made that it was in the public interest and that he had reasonable grounds for so believing.

But the judge said the transcript of the meeting at which he was given notice showed “no reference to concerns about the reputation of the firm for example or to his colleagues’ behaviour failing to meet the standards required of a solicitor”.

This made it “harder” for Mr Broomhead meet the test, Judge McDonald said, while he might also struggle to show the causal link between the disclosure and the dismissal.

He sought to raise his grievance about work allocation in response to the COLP’s invitation to a meeting about his performance, specifically his low billable hours and a client complaint.

“It is clear that there were issues with the claimant’s performance about which the respondent was taking action before he made any kind of protected disclosure at the meeting on 2 August,” the judge said. “The grievance email does not refer to any breach of the SRA code.”

There was also “no clear evidence” as to whether the COLP had seen the email before the meeting. The evidence on the subsequent decision to summarily dismiss, made by another senior figure at the firm, was “even less clear”.

Judge McDonald said: “The documents in the bundle appear to corroborate the respondent’s case that the summary dismissal was because of the claimant’s conduct not any disclosure…

“Stepping back and looking at matters in the round, what I find is that there is not the required ‘pretty good chance’ of the claimant showing that he made a qualifying disclosure, particularly because of the public interest point.

“I also find that the claimant cannot show that there is a pretty good chance of his establishing the causal link between the disclosure and the dismissals.

“In those circumstances overall my view is that there is not a pretty good chance of the claimant succeeding with his claim of automatically unfair dismissal at the final hearing.”

That meant the judge would have rejected the claim for interim relief if he had had jurisdiction.

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