The Court of Appeal ruled today that a legal aid firm was justified in dismissing a solicitor for ‘topping up’ sums with cash payments from his client’s father.
In DPP Law Ltd v Greenberg Lord Justice Popplewell said that the Employment Appeal Tribunal appeal had been wrong to uphold experienced solicitor Paul Greenberg’s challenge to his dismissal.
Greenberg had been fired by Liverpool firm DPP Law over allegations of gross misconduct arising from his acceptance of £150 from the father of one of his legally aided clients. The employment tribunal rejected his claim for unfair dismissal, but the EAT said this decision was not sufficiently ‘rooted in findings of fact’.
However Popplewell LJ today concluded that the EAT judge, not the initial tribunal judge, had fallen into error. He said the appeal tribunal ‘failed to adopt the proper approach’ and its decision was not based on a fair reading of the employment tribunal decision as a whole. The judge therefore allowed the DPP Law appeal and effectively ruled that Greenberg was not unfairly dismissed.
The court heard that Greenberg had joined DPP’s predecessor firm in 2004 and by the time of his dismissal in 2017 he had a 14% shareholding in the business, with drawings of around £11,200 a month.
In late 2016 he was instructed to represent a teenager on a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent. The suspect’s father confirmed that he had met Greenberg in a pub car park and put £150 in notes through his car window.
Greenberg told his firm that the money was a gift and at no point had he asked for it. He understood that a gift of significant value should be refused unless the client took independent legal advice, but he did not consider this to be significant. If he was wrong about this, he apologised and offered to return the money.
At the employment tribunal, Judge Ferguson concluded that the firm held a genuine belief that Greenberg had committed an act of gross misconduct, and that summary dismissal fell within the range of reasonable responses. The firm, it was found, was entitled to decide that Greenberg’s conduct amount to a breach of the legal aid contract, compromised his integrity and risked jeopardising the firm’s relationship with the Legal Aid Agency.
On first appeal, the EAT judge was said to have found the case against Greenberg to be ‘essentially circumstantial and inferential’, and had not evaluated why he was dismissed.
However Popplewell LJ said the employment tribunal had set out the law correctly and identified the correct questions that needed answering.