Scottish Christian charity must pay more than £100k after tribunal ruling

Arbroath Town Mission was ruled to have unfairly dismissed former centre manager Wilma Swankie, who was awarded almost £20,000 in lost earnings and compensation, with the charity paying legal costs

Arbroath Town Mission Centre (Photograph: Google)
Arbroath Town Mission Centre (Photograph: Google)

A small Scottish Christian charity has been left with a bill of more than £100,000 after refusing to back down in an employment tribunal case brought by a former employee that it had no prospect of winning, according to the tribunal judge.

Arbroath Town Mission, which ran a building used for church services and youth and community groups, unfairly dismissed former centre manager Wilma Swankie in 2017 and behaved in a “scandalous and unreasonable” way, Dundee Employment Tribunal ruled after a long-running case.

The tribunal awarded Swankie £19,298 in lost earnings and compensation after she was sacked by the charity in 2017, according to court documents released this week.

It also ordered the charity to pay both its own legal costs and Swankie’s, totalling almost £100,000, despite the fact the charity had lost about £150,000 a year for the past two years, had only £3,000 in the bank and had already put its premises up for sale.

Ian McFatridge, the tribunal judge, wrote in his ruling: “It must have been clear to the respondent from the outset that they would be unable to successfully defend the claim.”

He said there were so many “smoking guns” in the evidence for the case that no “reasonable employer” could have believed they would win the case.

And, he said, the trustees had behaved in a “scandalous and unreasonable” way during the tribunal, trying to “obfuscate and prevaricate” to drag the case out because they knew they could not win.

Swankie, who had worked for the charity since 1987, was dismissed after making whistleblowing declarations to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator.

She believed the charity was failing to comply with its constitution by allowing only those people who attended church services at the centre, and not those who used it for other activities, to vote on whether the charity should become a Scottish charitable incorporated organisation.

The judge ruled that, based on the information available to her at the time, Swankie had a reasonable belief that trustees had behaved illegally by not obeying the charity’s constitution, so her report to the OSCR counted as a protected disclosure under whistleblowing legislation, which meant she should not have been sacked for making it.

Even if that had not been the case, the court documents said, the way trustees had handled the disciplinary case that led to Swankie’s dismissal had not been fair, and “it is clear that the decision to dismiss was not based on any genuine consideration of what the claimant was supposed to have done”.

The charity previously had a contract with the local authority to run a lunch club and daycare facility on its premises, but ended the contract in 2019 after a cut in funding and falling numbers meant it was no longer financially viable, Third Sector understands.

All staff except the pastor have been made redundant, the court documents said.

The charity hopes to sell its building, worth £235,000 according to court documents, and find smaller premises from which to continue its volunteer-run activities.

The charity was given a loan by an anonymous well-wisher to cover the cost of the damages awarded to Swankie and plans to pay this off with some of the proceeds of the sale.

A spokesman for the charity told Third Sector the trustees had “understood themselves to be acting lawfully” and were “obviously disappointed” by the ruling.

“The OSCR did a full investigation of the changes we made to the constitution that led to this disagreement, and found we had no case to answer,” he said.

“We are, however, glad that we can now move forward and get on with our important work in the community, including projects such as our community cafe, youth and kids' clubs and our children's clothes bank initiative.

“We are grateful to be able to do so thanks to the generosity of our members.”

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