Travers Smith has lost a discrimination case brought against it by a former trainee who claimed she was not given a permanent job because of her pregnancy.
Katie Tantum instructed Leigh Day to launch the case against the firm after failing to gain a newly-qualified (NQ) position in the firm’s real estate department (15 February 2013).
Yesterday (16 May) the London Central Employment Tribunal found that Tantum’s pregnancy, discovered during the final seat of her training contract, was “the effective cause” of Travers’ decision not to give her a permanent job in the property team.
As a result of the decision, the firm has pledged to strengthen its commitment to diversity and its discrimination training programmes.
While the tribunal dismissed Tantum’s discrimination claims regarding permanent jobs in the corporate and tax teams and a 12-month contract in litigation, as well as four unfair dismissal claims, it upheld her allegation that she was discriminated against when she was not given a permanent job in the real estate practice.
The tribunal ruled that evidence provided by the firm’s regarding the sequence of events that led to Tantum not gaining an NQ position were “implausible”, and found that a situation had been contrived whereby two places in the real estate team became one to avoid employing her.
According to the judgment, partners Julian Bass and Andrew King, making the decision over how many positions to fill, were “prepared to discriminate because of pregnancy”.
The ruling stated: “We find that the email from Mr Bass on Saturday morning 26 May 2012 affecting to propose reconsideration of the matter of the number of posts available is a subterfuge,” the ruling said.
It continued: “Mr Bass was aware of the pregnancy of the claimant when he contrived the reduction of the second post. We conclude that the reduction of the second post was a device to prevent the claimant from being offered the post of newly qualified solicitor in the real estate department.”
The tribunal directed that Travers partners and senior staff “should participate in discrimination training” and that this should be monitored. It also said there should be formal documentation in place so there is a transparent process with feedback for deciding which trainees get positions. The firm should also put in place a defined procedure for dealing with the investigation of discrimination grievances.
A remedies hearing will take place on 5 June.
A spokesperson for Travers said: “We really did not expect this decision at all. We are very surprised and disappointed by it. Throughout the proceedings, we thought our evidence was strong. We still believe that, although the employment tribunal has found otherwise on one aspect of this claim.
“Before we took the decision to defend this case, we reviewed the allegations against us extremely thoroughly with everyone involved, including Andrew King and Julian Bass, as well as counsel. If we had not been satisfied with the strength of our defence, we would not have fought the claim.
“We have complete confidence in the integrity and professionalism of Andrew and Julian, built up over their many years at the firm. None of our discussions with either of them in relation to any aspect of this case has changed that.
“We sincerely regret that one of our former trainees was left unhappy from her experience at the firm, and we will take on board the lessons to be learned. Our trainees, associates and all our staff are fundamental to the future of the firm, and we are determined to do everything we can to ensure that they are all happy here.
“Our commitment to diversity takes many forms and will remain unwavering. We are, for example, founding signatories of the Law Society’s diversity and inclusion charter, and proud to be members of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme. Some 10 per cent of our associates, and four of our female partners, have flexible working arrangements. The tribunal decision strengthens our resolve to ensure that this commitment to diversity is properly understood. We have for some time operated a rolling programme of discrimination training within the firm. This will continue and we will be taking the opportunity to review the transparency of our approach to trainee qualification at the firm too.”
Leigh Day partner Liz George, representing Tantum, said in a statement: “We are delighted for Katie. It takes courage and tremendous resilience to stand up to your employer, even more so when that employer is a leading city law firm and you are only just embarking on your legal career. All of the witnesses at the tribunal on behalf of Travers Smith were senior partners in that firm.
“The evidence in this case was very clear: Katie’s level of performance meant that she would have been offered a permanent role at Travers Smith but she was denied that role because she was pregnant. Travers Smith is not alone in respect of its attitude on such matters. Despite there being equal numbers of female and male law students taking up training places at City firms, women are still failing to progress to senior roles in anything like the numbers of their male colleagues.”
Cloisters barrister Tom Coghlin added: “This judgment sends a strong message to employers that the rights of pregnant women in the workplace must be respected, whatever the nature of the workplace and whatever the status of the employee. Trainees are, of course, in a particularly vulnerable position. The tribunal’s recommendations make interesting reading, emphasising as they do the importance of transparency in recruitment procedures and training in discrimination, even for senior staff.”’
For the claimant Katie Tantum
Cloisters’ David Massarella instructed by Leigh Day & Co barrister Liz George
For the defendant Travers Smith
Essex Court Chambers’ Edward Brown instructed directly