Lawrence v Newlaw Legal Limited – solicitor wins unfair dismissal claim after defective appeal process

In the case of Lawrence v Newlaw Limited ET/2300423/2016 the Employment Tribunal held that a solicitor had been unfairly dismissed by her employer after her employment was terminated on allegations of gross negligence.

The facts in Lawrence v Newlaw Legal Limited

Ms Lawrence worked as a personal injury solicitor for Newlaw Legal Limited (“Newlaw”), a firm of solicitors based in Cardiff and Bristol. She started work for the firm in April 2011.

In September 2015 an issue arose on one of the files that Ms Lawrence was supervising, with the allegation being that she had failed to draft and serve a witness statement prior to a trial. She was informed that this allegation could potentially constitute gross negligence. Ms Lawrence had been subjected to a disciplinary earlier in the year on an allegation that she had made errors on 7 files and had ignored an instruction from her line manager, receiving a final written warning. She had also previously been addressed on a number of occasions since her employment on the management of her files, and had been subjected a capability process in 2014 after failing to meet billing targets.

Ms Darlington, a team leader from the Bristol office, was assigned to undertake the investigation into the allegations of gross negligence. She reviewed Ms Lawrence’s files and decided to focus on two files (“AMB” and “PBA”). She reviewed the files and took a number of witness statements. She also emailed senior management at Newlaw a list of questions that she intended to ask Ms Lawrence at the investigation meeting and stated that she was willing to amend the questions should senior management have any comments.

An investigatory meeting was held on 1 October 2015. At this meeting Ms Lawrence was asked questions on the files and Ms Darlington recorded her responses in bullet-point form in relation to each allegation that had been raised. Her conclusion was that there was a case to answer and that the matter should proceed to a disciplinary hearing. There was then correspondence between two managers at the firm on 7 October 2015, with one informing the other that “there will now be a disciplinary hearing at dismissal stage (albeit not a foregone conclusion but is likely…) and “I am sure Sue and Nic will update you following the disciplinary and before dismissal”.

A disciplinary hearing took place on 16 October 2016 and the decision to dismiss Ms Lawrence was communicated to her by telephone on 6 November 2016. This was then followed up on 16 November 2016 with a letter informing her of the outcome, detailing that the disciplinary panel had concluded that her conduct “constituted gross negligence” and that she was to be summarily dismissed. However, this letter did not cogently explain why she had engaged in misconduct and, in particular, why a finding of gross misconduct had been made.

Ms Lawrence appealed against her dismissal and an appeal process was undertaken. A brief appeal process took place and Ms Lawrence’s dismissal was upheld by the appeals officer, Mr Pardon.

The Employment Tribunal’s decision

The Employment Tribunal found that Ms Lawrence’s dismissal had been unfair: a fair initial disciplinary and dismissal procedure had been followed but the appeal process was defective in two respects:

  1. The dismissal letter was “devoid of reasoning” and inadequate in explaining why the disciplinary panel had decided to dismiss Ms Lawrence
  2. Mr Pardon had not approached the appeal with an open mind and the appeal hearing had been “shockingly brief”, denying Ms Lawrence the opportunity to challenge her dismissal

The Tribunal did find, however, that a Polkey reduction was likely to apply in the circumstances, as well as a substantial reduction for contributory fault on Ms Lawrence’s part.

Our solicitors’ comments on the case

The transcript in the case of Lawrence v Newlaw Legal Limited can be found here.