Insolvent charity taken to employment tribunal

Former caseworker Natasha Sivanandan accuses Advice for Life of sex, race and disability discrimination

A former employee of a legal aid charity that ceased trading at the end of July will begin an employment tribunal claim against it this week, including claims for sex, race and disability discrimination.

Advice for Life, which had an income in 2007/08 of nearly £1.8m, operated law centres in Cambridge and Huntingdon. Its website says that it called in insolvency practitioners on 31 July because of its financial position. About 40 jobs were lost.

It is being taken to the tribunal by Natasha Sivanandan, a former caseworker at Cambridge Law Centre. Her initial claim, which is expected to begin on 18 September, is for equal pay.

As well as alleging sex, race and disability discrimination, Sivanandan is also seeking protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act for leaking a damning report on the charity to the Cambridge Evening News earlier this year.

The report, commissioned by the trustees, highlighted a lack of financial checks and a culture of mistrust at the charity, the Evening News reported.

Sivanandan has taken several of her previous employers to the employment tribunal. A spokeswoman for the Charity
Commission said the regulator was looking into allegations of potential misuse of charitable funds at AFL. "We are currently assessing these concerns to establish our role in this matter," she said.

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council, which gave grants to AFL, said that the council had no complaints about the charity's conduct.

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Federation, the umbrella body for law centres, said no one had ever questioned the quality of AFL's work. She said she did not know all the details of its collapse, but said it was caused partly by changes in the way legal aid was funded.

Bishop said the transition between the old system, under which costs were paid up front and an amount for administration included, and the new system, where costs were paid only after a case was closed, had caused some organisations to go under.

Lawyers said a successful claimant against an insolvent organisation could receive some minimum payments from the National Insurance fund. For the remainder of any award, the claimant would become an unsecured creditor.

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