A paralegal subjected to f-word tirades by the senior partner of a London law firm has been awarded £47,000 by an employment tribunal – less than 5% of the value of her claim.
Employment Judge Pearl rejected Ms M Shirin’s argument that six established acts of harassment she experienced caused her mental breakdown.
Rather, it was the general behaviour of senior partner Richard Barca that was the cause, but this was not prohibited harassment.
Ms Shirin, a qualified barrister aged 52, claimed over £1m from Wilson Barca for harassment on the grounds of sex and age.
The judge said it was clear that the entirety of Mr Barca’s behaviour was “substantially greater” than the acts of harassment involving him and another member of staff he upheld in February last year, and the claimant had said as much.
In the liability ruling, Judge Pearl found that on two occasions Ms Shirin had been subjected to harassment on the grounds of gender under the Equality Act 2010, when Mr Barca, who was “unrestrained in abusing employees”, called her a “stupid cow” and a “stupid cunt”.
He went on: “There is no question that these remarks had the effect of creating a degrading and hostile environment for her.”
The judge also found that Ms Shirin had been subjected to harassment on the grounds of age, this time as a result of four separate comments made by another employee.
However, her other claims failed – most of the incidents cited did not amount to harassment because she received the same kind of general abuse that all staff at Wilson Barca did.
In the remedy ruling last month, Judge Pearl said Ms Shirin’s evidence was that she was proud to qualify as barrister, after coming to the UK in 1989, and referred to a mental breakdown that had occurred “at about the time of and following her resignation” from Wilson Barca in June 2016.
She had hoped to requalify as a solicitor with the firm. In her schedule of loss, she claimed five years of future loss of earnings at £50,000 per year and a further 10 years of future loss at £60,000, totalling £850,000.
She claimed £40,000 for injury to feelings, aggravated damages in an unspecified sum and personal injury in the sum of a little over £88,000. “Therefore, her claim before grossing up is in excess of a million pounds,” the judge observed.
He said Ms Shirin’s evidence indicated “a sad and probably daily chronology of upset concerning and within the working environment”.
Judge Pearl went on: “The conclusion we reach is that the evidence overall positively establishes that the claimant’s illness after June 2016 was caused by the entirety of the behaviour that she describes and her reaction to it.
“There is no evidence that connects the age or sex harassment to her breakdown in June.
“We conclude with a high degree of confidence that if the tortious acts had never occurred, the claimant would have become ill at the same point in time and to the same extent.”
Judge Pearl said the cause of Ms Shirin’s psychiatric illness was the “overall level of abuse suffered by a vulnerable employee”, and the upheld acts of harassment gave rise to injury to feelings, but were incidental.
“Her vulnerability arises in part from her personal history going back to earlier years in Bangladesh and also to the history of psychiatric illness after coming to the UK. This latter includes a number of years, approximately seven, when she was on antidepressant medication, up to 2011.
“We are not saying that the respondent’s behaviour did not make the claimant ill: it did. But any remedy for the psychiatric illness lies outside the jurisdiction of this tribunal.”
Judge Pearl concluded that the “dynamic in the office was in all respects stressful” and the claimant was “caught up in an inherently unstable and stressful environment”, but the harassment suffered by Ms Shirin was serious and he awarded her over £32,000 for injury to feelings.
He said the negative comments about Ms Shirin’s age were “in the context of other more supportive remarks”, and fell into none of the categories for aggravated damages.
However, Mr Barca’s comments were “not only grossly insulting but also oppressive” and the judge awarded £5,000 in aggravated damages for them.
Judge Pearl made no award at all for future losses, saying that without the upheld acts of harassment the claimant would still have resigned, either at the same time or shortly after, and been equally ill.
Adding interest from February 2016, “mid-way through the period of harassment”, Judge Pearl awarded the claimant a total of £46,908 in damages.
Earlier this year, Mr Barca was fined £20,000 by a disciplinary tribunal after loaning his client money at an annual interest rate of 60% and eventually repossessing her house, selling it and making a return of nearly twice what he lent her.
He was also reprimanded in 2015 for asking a solicitor in an email to behave “like a normal person instead of a complete plonker”.