An employment tribunal has expressed its “incredulity” at the way a solicitor’s former secretary befriended one of his clients and ended up in the client’s will.
Ms S Mansfield was also ordered to pay costs of £7,700 after her claims of disability discrimination on the grounds of dyslexia were dismissed by the tribunal.
Employment Judge Harper said the tribunal had “roundly found against” the claimant, whose case was “brought unreasonably and continued unreasonably”.
The judge said the tribunal was “very critical” of way she befriended an elderly client of Adrian Bressington, principal of AB Family Law in Gloucestershire.
Judge Harper said Mr Bressington asked Ms Mansfield to witness a power of attorney for the client, an “old lady” referred to as Ms X.
“This visit by the claimant to Ms X ended up with the claimant befriending Ms X and the tribunal was told by the claimant that Ms X is now very much a family friend and regarded as part of the family.”
The judge said the law firm then received a letter from Ms X, saying she wanted Ms Mansfield to act as her attorney – a “very strange development” given that the secretary had only just met her.
“Of itself it is suspicious,” the judge said, continuing: “The tribunal listened, with mounting incredulity, at how the claimant was prepared, perfectly freely, to admit how events subsequently unfolded without apparently appreciating the seriousness of the situation and how the situation appears to outsiders.
“What has subsequently happened is that a new lasting power of attorney has been drawn up with the claimant as attorney – she can control Ms X’s finances and a new will has been also been drawn up.
“The three beneficiaries under the will are now the claimant, the church which the claimant attends, and also the retirement village where Ms X lives.”
Judge Harper said Mr Bressington, who gave his evidence “in a very moderate way”, was “clearly angry” about the incident. It meant the solicitor has been “deprived of the fees” for re-doing the lasting power and undertaking the administration of the estate when Ms X dies.
“There did not seem to be any recognition at all by the claimant that she had done anything wrong…
“Very understandably [Mr Bressington] said that had he known about this at the time, and had the claimant been working for him at the time, he would have had no hesitation to dismiss the claimant for breach of mutual trust and confidence.”
Judge Harper said the incident with Ms X caused the tribunal “very considerable concern” and “seriously” undermined Ms Mansfield’s credibility.
Ms Mansfield was employed to answer phone calls and do archiving and typing for Mr Bressington, subject to a probationary period which was extended and continuing when she was dismissed.
Looking at other incidents, the judge said it was not appropriate for the secretary to obtain the passwords for Mr Bressington’s computer and his practice manager’s computer from the software provider.
“There was most curious evidence about the claimant moving documents to different dormant client files and then deleting them. This was clearly trying to cover up errors which had been made in documents.”
The judge agreed with Mr Bressington’s conclusion that Ms Mansfield “thought that she actually ran the business herself”.
Judge Harper said AB Family Law was a “very small” and busy practice run from Mr Bressington’s home.
There were “a number of issues” with Ms Mansfield’s performance. The documents in the tribunal bundle, which represented “about one week’s generation of documents”, showed a number with spelling or punctuation problems or words missing.
In one case, the names of two brothers involved in an inheritance dispute were mixed up. Two Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) certificates were put on the wrong files. On another occasion a court date was missed, resulting in a £5,000 wasted costs order for the firm.
The tribunal rejected Ms Mansfield’s claims that she told Mr Bressington she was dyslexic in December 2017 and that she had done an online test for dyslexia in May 2018.
“It is also the case the case that there is no medical evidence that the errors, of which there are many, were in fact related to dyslexia.”
Judge Harper said Ms Mansfield’s disability discrimination claims did not succeed because the tribunal was not satisfied that Mr Bressington was aware of the disability at the relevant time.
Furthermore, the secretary was not dismissed because of her disability, but because of her mistakes, the “tipping point” being the second MIAM certificate.
In terms of reasonable adjustments, the firm was too small to reallocate Ms Mansfield’s responsibilities and there was a ‘read out loud’ facility on the software.
The judge said the parties had agreed that Ms Mansfield should be paid just over £150 in holiday pay. Her claim for a month’s, rather than a week’s, notice in term of pay was rejected.
Judge Harper said that at the beginning of last month, Mr Bressington made an offer of £10,000 to Ms Mansfield, who had claimed £25,000 in damages. It was rejected.
The tribunal found that her case was “brought unreasonably and continued unreasonably”, particularly after the offer of £10,000.
Costs of £7,700 were awarded in favour of Mr Bressington, representing his counsel’s fees for the tribunal.