Watson Burton wins multi-million pound miners’ victory

Leeds firm Watson Burton has scored a multi-million pound Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) decision for miners against Britain’s largest producer of coal UK Coal.

The firm, acting for the British Association of Colliery Management (BACM), which brought the original claim with the National Union of Mineworkers, is expecting the decision could cost UK Coal £2.5m and reward employees who lost their jobs 90 days pay.

UK Coal, which is one of the companies born from the Government privatising British Coal, in January 2005 announced the closure of Northumberland’s last deep mine Ellington Colliery making the 350-strong workforce redundant.

The BACM and the Union brought proceedings after the two bodies were not consulted on the closure at Newcastle Employment Tribunal. UK Coal had claimed that the reason for closing the colliery was because it was unsafe due to a flooding incident but the tribunal held there was no evidence to support UK Coal’s claim that the colliery was closed for safety reasons.

This led to a decision resulted in an order for UK Coal to pay the maximum protective award to all miners who were put at risk of redundancy. This ruling the coal company appealed leading to yesterday’s judgment (22 October) which EAT comprehensively dismissed.

At the appeal, UK Coal had argued that it did not have to consult with the trade unions over the decision to close the mine. The company also argued that because it did not need to consult with unions regarding the decision to close the mine, it was immaterial that they had in fact given a false or misleading reason for the closure.

Lead counsel Seamus Sweeney of newly-merged set Park Lane Plowden Chambers, who was instructed by employment partner Paul McGowan from Watson Burton, argued that if the decision to close down the mine was beyond discussion it would make a mockery of UK Coal’s obligation to consult over ways of avoiding redundancies.

The EAT held that Sweeney’s interpretation was correct and that UK Coal did have an obligation to consult with the trade unions about its decision to close the mine.

The news comes as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) continue to seek out lawyers that abused the British Coal miners’ compensation scheme, which has seen firms reap more than £1bn of taxpayers’ money (The Lawyer, 9 April).

Just four months ago Law Society council member Glyn Maddocks, a partner at Welsh firm Gabb and Co, was fined £15,000 at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) and ordered to pay the costs, estimated to be £60,000 (The Lawyer, 29 June) including failing to recognise a conflict of interests between the firm and its clients as a result of his relationship with the claim farmers IDC.