Pro bono & community action: CC steps in on employment battle with record company

A team of volunteer lawyers from Clifford Chance has obtained a £7,000 settlement for a pro bono client unfairly dismissed from her job in the music industry.

Jo Swan, a production official for a small record company, was dismissed from her job three days after returning from her honeymoon in December 2002. No substantial reasons were given for her dismissal. Swan suspected that the dismissal was due to a falling-out with her line manager and a fear on the company’s part that, following her marriage, she was going to leave to start a family.

She went to the Wandsworth & Merton law centre, based in Tooting in early 2003, and was put in touch with Clifford Chance assistant Katrina Crosse, who, along with two of the firm’s trainees, took on her case.

Members of the public are usually not given Legal Aid to attend an employment tribunal, and many end up representing themselves. “There’s often a real inequality between employer and employee in an employment tribunal,” says Bob Nightingale, head of the Wandsworth & Merton law centre. “The company can often afford its own legal representation, whereas the employee may be left to represent themselves in court, so the scales are unbalanced. This is where law centres are invaluable.”

In this case, thanks to Clifford Chance, the case settled before reaching the tribunal. Swan donated £850 of her settlement to Wandsworth & Merton law centre.

The firm

As should be expected from the world’s largest law firm, Clifford Chance has a strong and comprehensive pro bono and community action scheme. A team of three full-time staff, reporting to pro bono partner Michael Smyth, administers the wide-ranging pro bono and community action programme.

Clifford Chance’s volunteer lawyers give free legal advice at a law centre in Hackney as well as at Wandsworth & Merton. A legal helpline has been set up by 15 of the firm’s lawyers for the human rights charity Liberty. The firm’s lawyers also help Reprieve, the charity run by Clive Stafford Smith that assists US death row prisoners and they provide free advocacy services for the National Autistic Society and Victim Support.

On the community side, the firm involves lawyers and support staff in helping children from Shapla Primary School, Tower Hamlets, with literacy and numeracy and in mentoring GCSE pupils at a nearby girls’ secondary school.

In the last financial year, 490 of the firm’s City lawyers undertook a total of 25,000 hours of pro bono work.

The Lawyer verdict

Unlike death row or human rights work, there is nothing especially glamorous about helping someone in an employment tribunal. But this sort of case is where a law firm’s pro bono scheme can really add value. It is admirable that Clifford Chance encourages its lawyers to take on bread-and-butter domestic cases for those that cannot afford access to justice.