Sinclair partners landed with £900,000 compensation bill at quantum hearing

An “Oppressive and malicious” attack by a former top partner at Stephenson Harwood against a former colleague have led to aggravated damages being imposed at a landmark sex discrimination tribunal.

Ben Leach, now a consultant at the firm, made the attack during an employment case last year, which found that two former partners at Sinclair Roche & Temperley, Siân Heard and Siân Fellows, were discriminated against by their former male colleagues.

Leach is among a number of former Sinclair Roche partners, some of whom are at Stephenson Harwood (which it merged with in 2002), who are liable for £900,000 compensation for the discrimination. This was awarded to Heard and Fellows by a tribunal on quantum last month.

Although significant, the partners’ liability is far below the £7m an employment tribunal predicted it would be last year.

Leach, a shipping and commercial litigator, provided evidence “designed to discredit [Siân Heard] without having any real foundation”, the quantum tribunal in Central London ruled on 19 March. As a result, the tribunal awarded Heard £3,000 in aggravated damages.

The substantive tribunal ruled that because of discrimination, Fellows and Heard neither entered Sinclair Roche’s senior equity partnership in 2000, nor remained with the firm when it merged with Stephenson Harwood, where they would have been fixed-salaried partners.

The verdict on Leach forms part of a wide attack on the Sinclair Roche partnership, found by the tribunal to have had a “discriminatory culture” that routinely prevented women from progressing beyond junior equity partners.

Only one woman had ever become a senior equity partner since maritime specialist firm Sinclair Roche was founded in 1934.

At the quantum tribunal, it was heard that Fellows and Heard were “more capable, committed and likely to perform well than those who had achieved the most senior level at Sinclair Roche”. There were also revelations about the state of Sinclair Roche – the envy of the City in the 1980s when maritime law was lucrative business – before it merged with Stephenson Harwood. It was described by the quantum tribunal as having no “rainmakers” and in need of a merger partner because of its “poor financial position”.

A note of a meeting on 15 February 2002 between senior Sinclair Roche partners stated: “[Sinclair Roche does] not have sufficient solicitors of high calibre to meet the workload.”

The quantum tribunal also revealed that Stephenson Harwood pays its average equity partners £124,879 net per year and new fixed equity partners just £68,332. This contrasts with average profits figures released by the firm of £200,000 last year.

Fellows, as a consultant at Richards Butler, which she joined after leaving Sinclair Roche, earns £80,000 for a four-day week.

John Pike, who in the last few weeks has been replaced as Stephenson Harwood’s managing partner by commercial litigator Sunil Gadhia, told the quantum tribunal that because of a recent review he had conducted, only a quarter of current fixed shares will ever join full equity. He added that he had also sought to make the firm’s remuneration more meritocratic.

A Stephenson Harwood spokesperson said the tribunal decisions only concern the Sinclair Roche partnership. “As far as Stephenson Harwood is concerned, the firm does not tolerate discrimination of any sort whatsoever and is absolutely committed to equal opportunities and diversity,” she said.

Sinclair Roche is appealing its £900,000 liability, the spokesperson added.