An Employment Judge has criticised a firm of solicitors for their failure to lodge a response on time in relation to a claim raised by one of their former employees.
Carole Scott, a conveyancing solicitor, was employed by Fisher Jones Greenwood LLP until her dismissal by way of redundancy on 31 July 2020, following 4 weeks’ notice. Ms Scott subsequently brought claims for unfair dismissal, age discrimination, disability discrimination, notice pay and holiday pay, contending there was ‘no genuine reason’ as to why she had been made redundant whilst on furlough. Moreover, there had been no effort to relocate or retrain her, despite this being available to other staff members, nor was there evidence to support the firm’s rationale for dismissing her.
The firm submitted their defence to Ms Scott’s claim on 13 January 2021, two days after the deadline date stipulated by the Tribunal, as well as an application to extend the time to lodge a response later the same day. The firm argued that the claim form was received on 18 December 2020, just before they closed for the Christmas period. Mr Anthony Fisher, a senior partner and head of the firm’s employment department, was dealing with the matter, but only returned to work on 11 January, which was, allegedly unbeknown to him, the last day for filing a response. Furthermore, it was claimed that due to a diary date mix up and issues with Coronavirus, which had taken up most of his attention, there had been little time to deal with the form on the same day. Nevertheless, once this had been identified, Mr Fisher handled the matter quickly, within two days. The firm also asserted that to refuse the extension and deprive them of the opportunity to defend the claim would be “draconian”.
Following a one-day hearing earlier this month however, their application was rejected on the basis that the firm had not provided any justifiable or permissible cause as to why the time limit should be extended. In the judgment, it was highlighted that the “various explanations offered by the firm lacked candour” and that excuses regarding delays because of the Coronavirus pandemic were without merit. Furthermore, the Judge did not believe there had been a miscalculation in relation to the submission deadline date. Instead, it was determined to be a “simple diary mistake” on the part of Mr Fisher, who should have “known better than to miss the limitation date in a claim against himself”.
Judge Housego also stated that “time limits are not aspirational”, they are deadlines, and “parties are expected to meet them, the more so for Respondents who are solicitors”. Consequently, by default, he found in favour of Ms Scott, who was awarded the costs she had incurred defending the application, which will be decided at a remedy hearing in due course. No ruling was given on whether Ms Scott’s claim would have been successful had it gone to trial, but it was noted that the “merits of the claim are apparent from reading it” and that the criticisms Ms Scott had highlighted surrounding the deficiencies in the merits of the defence put forward by the firm were “weighty”. This should serve as a lesson to employers facing tribunal claims – adhering to tribunal deadlines should be an absolute priority.