Trainee “bullied and unsupervised” in doing work of qualified lawyers

Training contract: Firm did not provide proper training and supervision

A trainee solicitor fired for raising concerns about her lack of supervision and the poor service clients were receiving from her firm has been awarded damages of £36,000.

Ms R Kaur was also subjected to bullying and harassment at London firm Gillen De Alwis Solicitors, which an employment tribunal said “failed to fulfil the fundamental purpose” of a training contract.

Judge Leonard-Johnston held that the disclosures she made internally were in the public interest.

“In addition to her concerns about how she was being treated, the claimant genuinely believed that the breaches of the SRA code were having a negative impact on the clients of the firm and that it was in the public interest for the firm to be held accountable.”

The employment tribunal said these concerns were reasonable and thus protected disclosures. It found they were the primary reason she was sacked and as a result she was unfairly dismissed.

Gillen De Alwis was a small Mayfair practice that went into administration at the end of last year. It did not appear at the hearing but submitted grounds of resistance.

Ms Kaur joined the firm in July 2021 and summarily dismissed nine months later.

The tribunal recorded that, shortly before she joined, the solicitor who ran the property department passed away, leaving it short staffed.

The judge said: “From the evidence before me it is clear that from the outset the firms’ leadership had not put effective systems in place to manage the workload of the property department, to manage human resources or to supervise the members of staff who were not legally qualified.

“On 9 July 2021, the day after she started her training contract, Ms De Alwis gave the claimant caseload responsibility for the work of two qualified lawyers who had been employed temporarily, following an email handover.” Shehani De Alwis was one of the firm’s founding partners.

There was no induction and the evidence showed that Ms De Alwis had “made comments that [Ms Kaur’s] contract would be in jeopardy if she did not get the reports on title done immediately”. This was fewer than two weeks after she had started her training contract.

Ms Kaur reported she and an intern were often left to deal with matters unsupervised and approve documents without them being checked. She said clients frequently complained about the lack of progress on their files.

Another director, Ravinder Singh, emailed Ms De Alwis on 19 July to express concern about the threats to terminate Ms Kaur’s contract, saying her expectations of the trainee were “unfair”. The tribunal agreed.

It held that Ms De Alwis bullied and harassed Ms Kaur, such as by criticising her for not completing tasks that she had in fact done but where Ms De Alwis had not read the email, using “belittling and insulting language”, and on one occasion screaming at the trainee on the telephone.

Ms Kaur also had work taken off her and then given back shortly after, and was moved into different departments with no notice.

“I find that the [firm] failed to fulfil the fundamental purpose of the training contract in that it did not provide training to the claimant,” said Judge Leonard-Johnston.

“The claimant was given insufficient supervision and training, was treated as if she were a qualified lawyer and criticised for not being so, and the claimant was blamed for problems which ultimately arose out of the failure of the firm’s management to properly supervise and manage the practice.

“[It] also breached the implied term of trust and confidence by subjecting the claimant to behaviour that constituted bullying and harassment.”

Ms Kaur raised her concerns about the disorganisation, lack of management and bullying over the months to Mr Singh, the other founding partner, Niamh Matthews Murray, and HR, but heard nothing back – even when she raised a formal grievance.

She was also in touch with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), finally making a written report in February 2022 – she had told the firm she was thinking of doing this but did not confirm that she had.

In April 2022, Ms Kaur was summarily dismissed without any investigatory or disciplining procedure, or any notice.

Judge Leonard-Johnston rejected the reasons given for this – her behaviour and that she was in breach of her training contract – and found it “more likely than not” that it was Ms Kaur’s disclosures (internally and not to the SRA, as the firm did not know this had happened) that were the cause.

The judge described Ms Kaur as “committed to her profession” and “an intelligent and diligent person”, such that she “endured the unreasonable behaviour of her employer”.

“Whilst I accept that was a breakdown in the relationship between Ms De Alwis and the claimant, and I understand that it was a difficult time for the firm, I nonetheless consider that the respondent was in breach of contract in failing to adequately train the claimant.

“The relationship breakdown was not as a result of a lack of capability on the part of the claimant but was because of the treatment of the claimant by Ms De Alwis.”

The judge noted that the firm itself had told creditors that Covid and the property solicitor’s death “changed the dynamics of the firm, the staff morale was low and the combined effects had a negative effect on the business from which it never fully recovered”.

The tribunal awarded Ms Kaur £36,062 for unfair dismissal and £362 for breach of contract because she was dismissed without notice.

The damages represented loss of wages to the end of her training contract, when she would have been made redundant fairly because of the firm’s financial difficulties.

Ms Kaur attempted to find another training contract, the judge said, but “the stigma attached to her dismissal prevented her” from obtaining one.

The amount was increased by 25% for the “clear breach” of the ACAS code on disciplinary and grievance procedures, and also included the cost of counselling and acupuncture Ms Kaur underwent because of the impact on her mental health.

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