UK Solicitor absent for cancer treatment was unfairly dismissed by law firm

The UK Law Gazette reports…

A solicitor sacked after taking leave following cancer treatment was unfairly dismissed, an employment tribunal has found.

Employment Judge Bedeau, sitting at Watford, dismissed a claim of direct disability discrimination by Elona Onibere against her former firm, Luton-based Rodman Pearce Solicitors Ltd. But the judge ruled that Onibere did suffer discrimination by being dismissed without consultation or an exploration of possible alternatives.

The tribunal heard that Onibere, a housing solicitor, had a clause in her contract stating that her employment could be terminated if she was absent for 26 weeks in any one year as a result of incapacity.

She became ill in February 2019 and requested time off, subsequently being diagnosed with yolk sac tumour, a type of cancer. At the end of July, the firm’s owner Ademola Akilo said he wrote to Onibere stating that in view of her inability to return to work due to illness, he was giving her a month’s notice.

Akilo had mistakenly believed he was entitled to dismiss her because of her continued absence. He did not know that, following her diagnosis, Onibere was a disabled person as defined in the Equality Act 2010. He acknowledged that with hindsight he should have taken specialist employment advice and apologised for any distress caused.

The tribunal heard that the firm was operating at a loss in 2019 and, during the period Onibere was absent, had lost another member of the housing team staff who was key to a legal aid contract.

Akilo said any consultation with Onibere would have come to the same conclusion, as her employment was no longer sustainable. The tribunal accepted there was no position for her to occupy in the housing team and ‘in all probability’ she would have been sent home at the end of any period of consultation.

But the tribunal found the firm had made a series of substantive failings: not sending the notice of termination letter, not sending the dismissal letter until mid-September, and offering no appeal hearing. A remedy hearing will be held next month.