EMPLOYMENT APPEAL TRIBUNAL: London boroughs of Camden and Brent in the spotlight over race claims

Two London councils are in the dock over their employment procedures after findings of discrimination and bias against solicitors.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) upheld the findings that the London Borough of Camden racially discriminated against and constructively dismissed Sikh solicitor Rajwinder Singh in the way it handled a complaint against him by an external solicitor.

In the second case, the London Borough of Brent - and the borough solicitor especially - were severely criticised for bias against job applications from Chineme Nwoke, a solicitor of black African origin, but it was not found to have been on the grounds of race and so her claim was dismissed.

The employment tribunal found that Camden council, and specifically Mr Singh's immediate superior - solicitor Richard Gruet - discriminated against him over a dispute that blew up while Mr Singh was handling a piece of aggressive litigation, and then harassed and intimidated him at meetings which followed.

The dispute began over forms of address in correspondence in the course of the litigation, and a series of letters sent to Mr Singh which began 'Dear Mr Raj', which he found offensive; however, no action was taken when he complained to his superiors.

The tone of the correspondence deteriorated thereafter and eventually the external solicitor complained to the borough solicitor.

Mr Singh was unhappy about the borough solicitor's reply, which the tribunal found 'undermined and destroyed his role as Camden's litigator' in the case.

He resigned shortly afterwards in March 2000.

On appeal, the EAT found no error of law in the tribunal's approach and upheld the earlier decision, while saying in obiter that the tribunal had put too much weight on the reply.

The council has decided not to appeal against the EAT ruling, but it is appealing against a 10,000 costs award to Mr Singh and the decision that Camden is liable to pay compensation for his lost pension rights.

Mr Singh said he took the case on a matter of principle - the 24,260 in damages awarded by the tribunal only just covered his costs, he said - and that he felt vindicated having 'put my life on hold for three-and-a-half years' to pursue it.

He now works in private practice in central London.

A council spokeswoman said: 'A thorough examination of the reasons for the decision will be undertaken and Camden will consider any lessons to be learnt in terms of policy and practice.' Mr Gruet was not available for comment.

Ms Nwoke's case concerned separate applications over the course of six months for the post of borough solicitor, principal lawyer and senior lawyer at Brent.

By majority, the original tribunal found that she had been less favourably treated than her white comparators, but that this had not been on racial grounds.

The dissenting member said it was on racial grounds.

Ms Nwoke appealed.

In relation to the second two posts, the EAT upheld the finding that the borough solicitor - Terry Osborne - had preferred people she knew personally, and that the selection was not on racial grounds.

It branded Ms Osborne's behaviour as 'reprehensible'.

The EAT overturned the finding in relation to Ms Nwoke's application for borough solicitor - which at the crucial time was dealt with by an external recruitment company and after which Ms Osborne was appointed - because the tribunal's reasoning was inadequate.

It initially ordered a rehearing, but then decided that Ms Nwoke had been out of time in bringing that claim.

The EAT said it dismissed her appeal 'with some regret.

We take the view that the appellant was badly treated by Brent, which emerges from this case with no credit whatsoever'.

Ms Nwoke, advised by North Lambeth Law Centre, is seeking leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Saying she felt frustrated by the EAT ruling, Ms Nwoke maintained that she would have been treated differently had she been white.

She recently joined the London Borough of Hackney as principal solicitor, litigation.

A Brent council spokeswoman said: 'It is perhaps understandable that Ms Nwoke is disappointed that she was not appointed to the post of borough solicitor, the post currently held by Ms Osborne.

However, we are satisfied that the recruitment process on that occasion and on two subsequent occasions when Ms Nwoke applied for posts but was not successful was undertaken properly.' She said that each time the appointment was made by a properly constituted panel and not one person.

'Any further appeal will be strenuously defended by the council,' she added.

Neil Rose