Tribunal Report: Costly court battle provides lessons in communication

The Court of Appeal has recently handed down its judgement in the case of St Christopher's Fellowship v Walters-Ennis - a story that underlines the serious and costly consequences of failing to communicate and consult properly with employees

Victoria Willson
Victoria Willson

The story

Barbara Walters-Ennis was employed as a fostering manager at St Christopher's Fellowship, a children's charity and supported housing provider. The charity had concerns about her appointment of her stepdaughter and someone whom it mistakenly believed to be her friend. Without consulting Walters-Ennis, it began new recruitment processes, from which she was excluded.

Walters-Ennis complained and received an unsatisfactory response. She resigned and brought claims of constructive unfair dismissal and race discrimination, the latter on the basis that there could be no other explanation for the treatment she had received.

The legal decisions

 The Employment Tribunal upheld the constructive unfair dismissal claim and found race discrimination in the charity's handling of Walters-Ennis's appointment of her 'friend', awarding her almost £43,000. The charity appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and was unsuccessful. It successfully appealed the finding of race discrimination to the Court of Appeal (having conceded the unfair dismissal claim) and the court reduced the compensation by almost £15,000.

A key factor in the court's decision was that the tribunal that heard the case in the first instance found there had not been race discrimination in relation to the charity's handling of her appointment of her stepdaughter (where the potential conflict of interest was obvious). The Court of Appeal took the view that the charity's response to both appointments was motivated by the same concern - a potential conflict of interest.

Lessons for charities

Most striking is how easily the charity could have avoided a claim, had it communicated and consulted with Walters-Ennis. The outcome of the race discrimination claim will be of some comfort to employers, but the costs and time taken to fight it will not. Reasons for decisions should be documented to ensure that, in the event of a discrimination claim, there is strong contemporaneous evidence of the non-discriminatory basis of those decisions.

Tribunal report is a new monthly column

- Victoria Willson is a solicitor at Levenes Employment, third sector specialists

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