A ‘popular, hard-working and long-serving member of staff’ at a high street firm was unfairly dismissed, an employment judge has found.

Employment tribunal

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Charlotte Rose O’Neill, a legal secretary who became an accredited police station representative, joined Durham-based firm The Richmond Partnership in March 2010 and resigned with effect from March 2023.

O’Neill’s working relationship with one of the firm’s partners Suzanne Hanson, the head of the criminal law department, was ‘at the heart of these proceedings’.

Employment judge Sweeney said Hanson ‘genuinely believed she had a good working relationship’ with O’Neill, who ‘also believed, by and large, that she and Ms Hanson had a good working relationship’.

He added: ‘However, there was a caveat to this, namely that from the claimant’s perspective, that depended on what kind of mood Ms Hanson was in’.

The use of the word 'bully' to describe Hanson was unwarranted, the judge said, adding: ‘There is a tendency nowadays to label a very wide range of behaviour as "bullying" behaviour.  I must make clear in my judgement that based on the evidence I have heard and seen, the description of Ms Hanson as a "bully" is objectively unwarranted. At its highest, my findings lead me to the conclusion that she can fluctuate in mood and that she cannot keep her bad moods to herself.’

O’Neill raised her concerns with two other partners at the firm, stating that ‘she was thinking of resigning because of the way she perceived Ms Hanson to treat her’. They did not get back to her. The removal of the on-call phone, which had predominantly been in O’Neill’s possession, was the ‘trigger’ for her resignation.

The judgment said: ‘As far as [O’Neill] was concerned, the sequence of events was: concerns raised, period of silence, removal of on-call phone. It was the trigger for her decision to terminate her employment.’

Highlighting Hanson’s comments when frustrated with work, the judge said: ‘Whilst it is perfectly understandable that Ms Hanson might from time to time be frustrated and somewhat stressed by bureaucracies of the Legal Aid Agency and the pressures of a criminal law practice, it was not reasonable or proper behaviour for the head of department to voice those frustrations in the way that she did and without then reassuring the claimant.’

Finding O’Neill was constructively dismissed, the judge said she ‘resigned her employment in response to a course of conduct that had been carried on over a period of time’ adding ‘the trigger being the last act complained of, the removal of the phone’.

A remedy hearing will be held later this year unless the parties are able to reach an agreement on compensation. The judge indicated a 15% increase to the compensatory award as a result of the firm’s ‘unreasonable failure’ when it ‘did not carry out necessary investigations to establish any facts’ in relation to O’Neill’s grievance.

He added: ‘The respondent is a firm of solicitors which ought to understand the value in establishing facts, especially when the invitation to submit a grievance has been expressly made to the employee.’

The firm has been approached for comment.