System failure led to default judgment against leading law firm

Duncan Lewis: Breakdown in internal communication

Leading legal aid firm Duncan Lewis has been ordered to pay a former director costs of £6,500 for setting aside a default employment tribunal judgment caused by its internal failures.

Chinedu Orogbu, a housing specialist, was dismissed as a director on 12 November 2020.

The following April, he began his claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination arising from disability and failure to make reasonable adjustments. He is seeking more than £200,000.

However, Duncan Lewis did not respond to the claim or attend a preliminary hearing last November. After default judgment was issued, the firm applied to extend time and set it aside.

Before Employment Judge Burgher in East London, the firm acknowledged that letters from the tribunal had been received, digitised and forwarded to a director in its risk and compliance department.

Duncan Lewis “frankly” conceded that there had been a breakdown in its internal communication process, “which was exacerbated by the personal and professional commitments” of its practice director. This resulted in the tribunal correspondence “not being actioned”.

The firm has now updated its systems to ensure “that mail is now sent digitally to at least two directors”.

Mr Orogbu objected to the application and applied for costs. The judge accepted that “the further delay in having his case progressed is prejudicial to him in affecting his health”.

The firm argued that it had good prospects of defending the claim, the failure was not deliberate and a default judgment of this nature would undermine its reputation, given it has a gold standard Investors in People. It accepted that it would pay Mr Orogbu’s costs.

Mr Orogbu argued that Duncan Lewis had “little or no reasonable prospect of success” in defending his claim and that there was limited reputational damage as there was already a publicly available default judgment.

Judge Burgher said the firm’s conduct was “unreasonable in the negligent sense” but that the balance of prejudice favoured allow it an extension of time to present its response.

He revoked the default judgment and ordered Duncan Lewis to pay Mr Orogbu costs of £6,500.

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