A City firm acted lawfully by dismissing a trainee solicitor who had sent more than 100 work emails to a private account, London Central employment tribunal has ruled.
It found that Sterling Lawyers Limited was justified in dismissing Wing Sze Siu just over a year into her training contract over the email data breaches.
But the tribunal was also highly critical of the firm for failing to produce any disciplinary investigation before dismissing Siu. ‘Given that the respondent is a law firm with a developed disciplinary policy, the approach that it adopted in its investigation of the claimant’s professional conduct was seriously deficient and unsatisfactory,’ added the tribunal.
Siu began working for Sterling Lawyers as a trainee in July 2021 and was given a billing target four times her £35,000 salary.
The parties had agreed that her employment would end in December 2022 after the firm had concerns that Siu was failing to meet her billing targets. There were also concerns that she was being rude to other staff, remained distant from colleagues and refused to attend the office during business hours.
A meeting had been set up for August 2022 to discuss performance but Siu failed to attend. Further attempts to arrange a meeting were also unsuccessful.
The firm then recovered 106 emails which had been sent by Siu from her work email account to a private email. These contained telephone logs, internal documents and information relating to staff members.
Siu then reported the firm to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the legal ombudsman alleging that it was involved in ‘fraudulent activities’ and had leaked client information. There was no suggestion in the tribunal ruling of any substance to these allegations.
When Siu again failed to attend a planned meeting in October 2022, the firm decided to terminate her employment. A day later she notified the firm she was pregnant, and three days after that the firm sent a letter confirming her dismissal.
Siu claimed she was unfairly dismissed because she made a protected disclosure to the SRA and/or she was pregnant. She failed to produce a proper witness statement but the tribunal agreed to treat a one-and-a-half page attachment to her claim form as a statement.
The tribunal did not accept that Siu’s disclosures to the SRA had caused the decision to dismiss her. Similarly, the firm had made its mind up before the notification of her pregnancy.
But the sending of emails with confidential and client sensitive communications to a private email address was viewed as a fundamental breach of her contract. Her denials about this conduct were ‘equivocal and unconvincing’, the tribunal added. The claim was dismissed.