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Tribunal rules council guilty of constructive dismissal of trainee solicitor

A trainee solicitor, who was bullied by his training principal and legal manager at a district authority in North Yorkshire, secretly taped review meetings where he was intimidated, an employment tribunal heard. 

David Bowes, 27, discreetly taped discussions at Hambleton District Council, Northallerton, where he was criticised and repeatedly asked the same questions, as a last resort after becoming concerned that written accounts of the meetings issued by his managers amounted to a cover up.

After enduring months of bullying and intimidation and being given unwarranted official warnings, David Bowes, a law graduate and former business community support officer at the authority, resigned after sick leave, having sought GP help for stress and anxiety.

His case for constructive dismissal and breach of training contract, brought by head of employment law at Harrowells Solicitors, York, Marie Horner, was upheld by an employment tribunal at Teesside Magistrates Court on October 7 and a financial settlement has since been agreed out of court.

Before the hearing started, judge Jennie Wade listened to the secretly-recorded tapes of David Bowes’ meetings with his legal manager, Laura Venn, and the authority’s acting director of law and governance, and his training principal, Gary Nelson, as part of evidence from his barrister, Sam Healy of Dere Street Chambers, York.

David Bowes, who already had a law degree from Sheffield Hallam University, Post Graduate Diploma from the University of Sheffield and had successfully completed workplace training elsewhere, was trying to complete a two-year training contract as the final stage in his qualifications. He had started at Hambleton District Council in July 2013 and became a trainee solicitor in November 2014 after applying to an internal vacancy.

But after a matter of months, he found himself the target of constant criticism, largely for the time he took to complete legal work for the authority when he wanted to be thorough and had sought guidance from Gary Nelson who threatened to tell the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which ultimately oversaw the training, that he was not fit to be a lawyer.

After the employment tribunal’s ruling, Marie Horner said: “David Bowes was trying to work to the best of his ability and complete his training but Gary Nelson sent him formal warning letters without any regard to due process under employment law, even though he is a solicitor.”

Eventually David Bowes tried to resolve the failing relationship and lack of training by asking the local authority’s current chief executive’s advice on submitting a grievance about how he was being managed but he was urged to withdraw it.

Marie Horner added: “David withdrew his grievance hoping someone senior would resolve the difficulties informally but instead they closed ranks on him.

“An investigation into his claims was not reasonable. He was not able to see, or comment upon, the other side’s statements. They did not properly take into account the evidence he submitted, separate evidence from a witness who supported his views, or seemingly have any interest in resolving the issue fairly.

“Instead, they told him he did not have a grievance. He unsuccessfully appealed internally and was then told he would be subject to disciplinary proceedings for having raised a “malicious” grievance. He’d had enough and resigned. I had briefly met David before this episode and thought he was a bright, confident young man. After this, he was a shadow of his former self. It devastated him at this stage of his legal career.

“Training contracts are notoriously difficult to secure for any budding lawyer. To lose the contract that he had worked so hard for was distressing for him as it is very hard to get another. When he first approached me to represent him, David’s biggest fear was that his legal career might be over if he couldn’t resolve the problems he was experiencing with his managers.”

After the settlement was announced, David Bowes said: “Even winning this case is a hollow victory as I have still lost my training contract. No monetary award can make up for the fact that I now look highly unlikely to fulfill my dream of qualifying as a solicitor especially as I spent more than £20,000 on tuition fees alone to gain my legal qualifications.”