Travers ‘discriminated against pregnant trainee’, tribunal hears

A former Travers Smith trainee has claimed the firm discriminated against her by not granting her a permanent job as a lawyer because she was pregnant.

Andrew Lilley
Andrew Lilley

Katie Tantum found out she was pregnant during her final trainee seat at the City firm and claims that her line manager “stopped bothering” with her weeks after she told him she was expecting a child.

Tantum, who is suing the firm for pregnancy discrimination and unfair dismissal, makes specific allegations in her witness statement about the way managing partner Andrew Lilley handled her original complaint to him after she found out she was not being considered for a permanent newly qualified role.

She also attacks the firm’s “attitude towards pregnancy discrimination”.

She claims that she was only offered a two-month contract until her maternity leave and was one of three out of 22 trainees not taken on permanently or given a minimum 12-month contract. She also claims that when she heard last May that she was not being kept on permanently litigation partner and training principal Andrew King told her “no one put their hand up” for her.

The firm denies all the allegations and claims that Tantum was not of good enough quality to obtain a job as a lawyer at the firm.

The tribunal heard that Tantum wrote to Lilley, an employment lawyer, after hearing the news and received a letter from him that “categorically refuted” any possibility that her pregnancy was a factor.

Her witness statement details widespread claims about the firm’s treatment of her, alleging the firm “is not committed to tackling” pregnancy discrimination.

It also emerged during the proceedings that the firm had previously received two complaints in 2009 related to pregnancy or maternity discrimination.

Commenting on Lilley’s response, Tantum claims: “Even if that was true [that she was not discriminated against because she was pregnant], which I do not believe, Mr Lilley was in no position to know that that was the case without making proper enquiries, which presumably would or should have taken more time.

“Mr Lilley’s holding reply also meant that the substantive response to my complaint would only be a confirmation of what he had already decided. There was no hope, therefore, that my allegations would be looked at with an open mind to the possibility that I might benefit.

“I think that Mr Lilley’s response to my complaint epitomises the firm’s attitude towards pregnancy discrimination. Contrary to the statements it makes in its equal opportunities material, the firm is not committed to tackling this issue. If the firm was serious about this, Mr Lilley’s reply, while perhaps expressing the view that he doubted very much that my pregnancy had played a part in the firm’s decisions would, at the very least, have said that he will investigate the complaint, especially since I am not the first woman to have made this allegation: the firm has previously had employment tribunal proceedings brought against it claiming pregnancy or maternity discrimination.”

The tribunal heard yesterday (14 February) of a chain of emails among some partners making judgements about certain candidates including Tantum, many of which were based on little or no professional evidence, her counsel alleged.

Her barrister, David Massarella of Cloisters, instructed by Leigh Day & Co barrister Elizabeth George, probed the issue of Travers’ recording processes and brought evidence pointing to an informal way of selecting successful candidates.

In one case, a partner claimed in an email that a certain candidate was clearly keen on litigation because the trainee had been on the department’s skiiing trip, for which they have to pay a small amount, the tribunal heard yesterday. It then emerged that the partner had confused the candidate with another one, the tribunal heard.

Tantum, the daughter of former MI6 Middle East director Geoffrey Tantum, appeared at the London Central Employment Tribunal this week, with the hearing expected to end today (15 February).

She alleges in her statement: “The firm states on its website, when writing about its culture, that ‘there is certainly no staying late to look good’. That is just not true. While our contracts may have said that ‘normal office hours’ were 9.30am to 5.30pm, I certainly had the impression that it was frowned upon to be seen to want to get away before 6.30pm.”

She alleges that Mahesh Varia, head of employee incentives and her line manager at the time, “just stopped bothering with me” after she became pregnant.

Tantum claims: “The contrast was quite startling, in terms of how I was supervised before the news of my pregnancy and how I was supervised afterwards. I was not given anywhere like the same amount of work. Whereas I had previously been busy at work and staying in the office after 8.30pm on a number of occasions, I ceased to be at all busy after this – in fact I often had very little work to do, which I found frustrating.

“Also, Mahesh did not mentor me in the same fashion. He stopped involving me in his cases and no longer took time to explain a particular matter in the way that he had done previously.”

King and tax head Kathleen Russ were among the figures at the firm to give evidence, with both appearing yesterday.

The firm claimed its partners had received diversity and equal opportunities training, while King told the tribunal that a review of the firm’s trainee-scheme policies by the SRA had shown no cause for concern.

Travers declined to comment while the tribunal process is ongoing. The firm was represented by Edward Brown of Essex Court Chambers.

The case continues.