The legal profession has always been known for its long working days. It is an expectation when working at large firms in cities like London or New York that lawyers will stay in the office well into the night, or over the weekend (while I would urge you not to believe everything that you might watch on Suits, this aspect is surely accurate). Failure to meet these demands would almost certainly stagnate your career prospects and outcast you from your peers.
Not surprisingly, this toxic city work culture (which is slowly being undone), has resulted in one London barrister being found liable to pay compensation in the sum of £155k.
The claimant had been employed as a legal and personal assistant by the barrister. At the time of her employment in March 2021, she had informed her employer that she suffered from PTSD, depression and anxiety. She was then diagnosed with a chronic pain condition in the summer of the same year. The barrister was well aware of her PA’s disabilities and the effect which these had on her ability to complete normal day to day activities.
Eventually, the workload was causing too much detriment to the assistant’s life. She requested – quite reasonably – that she not receive work to do over the weekends to allow her to recover from the intensity of the work week. Unfortunately, this attitude did not align with the demands of being available ‘at the drop of a hat’ as the barrister expected (Miranda Priestly spring to mind anyone?). This caused the barrister to inform the assistant that, if she couldn’t complete the work, then she would find another assistant.
As a result of her unforgiving work life, the claimant eventually had to resign in December 2021. However, the ripple effect of her chaotic work life continued to cause her detriment even after she resigned. So much so, that she developed seizures, and further declining mental health to the point that she could not leave the house without support. This stopped her from working, and resulted in her resignation from her second job as a beauty product salesperson and caused her to step down as a student ambassador at her university.
When the facts of this case were presented to an Employment Tribunal, the claim for unfair dismissal was dismissed because the claimant had less than 2 years’ service. However, it was established that the barrister had failed to make reasonable adjustments – contrary to s.21 of the Equality Act 2010 – in failing to grant the claimant 2 days off per week as per her request. Threatening the claimant with dismissal was also regarded as unfavourable treatment under s.15 EqA. Finally, witness evidence at the Tribunal indicated that the barrister had joked about the claimant having to be admitted to an asylum and being tied up in restraints with no internet access. This was deemed to constitute harassment under s.26 EqA.
These facts prompted the judge to consider that the barrister’s iron fisted approach had taken compensation beyond injury to feelings, and was more akin to have caused personal injury to the claimant. The judge was convinced that the barrister was at fault for ‘the entirety of the injury’, and ordered her to pay £90,000 in compensation for this leg of the claim.
He compounded this with estimating the recovery period to be in the region of two-and-a-half-years. As a result, he awarded £60,400 to cover the past and future loss of the claimant. Another £5000 in interest was added for good measure.
This case has demonstrated some key lessons for employers.
1. Have a note of employee’s medical issues and disabilities. Take them into account when making business decisions that could affect them.
2. Always try to implement reasonable adjustments that align with the legitimate aims of the company.
3. Don’t threaten staff with dismissal if its unwarranted, and ensure there is a healthy work environment where people with disabilities can positively contribute to the growth of the business.
4. While the majority of employers may never ask their employees to work 24/7, what is deemed to be reasonable will change on a case-by-case basis. It is critical that you balance the aims of the business with the needs of your employees, and if you have any concerns, make sure to consult an employment lawyer for advice.
If you have any questions about this, or any other Employment law issue, then please get in touch with the Blackadders Employment team with offices throughout Scotland.