One of the most prominent figures on the local government legal scene has been named in an employment tribunal finding that Essex County Council unfairly dismissed an in-house solicitor because of racial discrimination.

The tribunal, sitting in Colchester, heard that Philip Thomson (pictured), director of Essex Legal Services (ELS) and president of Lawyers in Local Government, made ‘inappropriate references to Hitler’ in the hearing of Evelyne Jarrett, the most senior black manager at Essex Legal Services. Members of staff, including Thomson, were also given ‘inappropriate nicknames’.

The tribunal upheld complaints of victimisation, harassment and unfair dismissal.

Thomson denied the ‘Hitler’ claim, saying he could not believe that anyone could think that he could speak positively about Hitler. Essex County Council said it was ‘shocked and disappointed’ by the tribunal’s findings and is considering an appeal.

The dispute arose during a reorganisation of ELS, which describes itself as being ‘at the forefront of developing shared legal services’ to make it more commercially focused. It is one of several local government legal organisations considering alternative business structure status.

Jarrett, who was at Essex for two and a half years, was the only lawyer whose employment was terminated as a result of the restructuring.

She left the council early in 2012, claiming that she had been treated ‘unfairly, unreasonably and inconsistently’ by being passed over for a role and being offered alternative employment that was unsuitable. She was dismissed on 30 April 2012.

According to a reserved judgment published this month following an eight-day hearing, ELS ‘is clearly very much run’ by Thomson, who took ‘all key decisions’ on implementation.  

In a 59-page judgment, employment judge M Warren rejected allegations that the council’s appraisal processes were tainted by race discrimination and that Jarrett had been discouraged from applying for the post of head of dispute resolution.  

However the tribunal found that ‘on the balance of probability’ Thomson had said he would use the restructure to get rid of people he did not want ‘or words to that effect’. It also upheld an allegation that Thomson had subjected Jarrett to unjust criticism, saying that she should not ‘spend valuable council time perfecting reports’.

Ruling that Thomson ‘probably did make remarks to that effect to Ms Jarrett’, the tribunal upheld the allegation.

It also found that Jarrett had been wrongly denied redundancy payments on the ground that she had refused alternative employment. Because Jarrett ‘had every reason to believe she was not being dealt with in good faith… [she] could reasonably take the view that this was not employment suitable for her’.

The tribunal noted that Jarrett’s initial letter raising a grievance ‘made no mention of race’.

On the ‘Hitler’ allegation, the tribunal said: ‘Any positive reference in the workplace to Hitler has the potential to be highly offensive to any person of ethnic minority origins. A person of ethnic minority origins is bound to feel disadvantaged in a workplace managed by a person who considers it acceptable to make any positive reference, of any kind, to Hitler.’

While Thomson had denied making any positive references to Hitler’s management methods, two ‘credible witnesses’ had recalled such mentions. ‘It is something from which the inference may be raised that he is a person who may well treat a person less favourably because of their race,’ the judgment says.

Jarrett’s solicitor, Anthony Robinson of London firm Scott-Moncrieff & Associates, said: ‘I have dealt with many hundreds of employment tribunal cases and much of what came out in the evidence was some of the worst examples of poor treatment, undermining and racial discrimination that I have come across.’

A remedy hearing will be held at a date to be set.