What was looking like a quiet Friday in the office – I’d even started to tidy my desk – was brought to life just before lunchtime, by publication of the employment tribunal written judgment (PDF) on the claim for constructive unfair dismissal brought by former winner of The Apprentice, Stella English, against the reality TV show’s famously shouty star, Lord Sugar.
The judgment is 27 pages long and, whilst parts of it make for entertaining reading, you could make do with this excellent summary and legal analysis by famed employment law blogger Darren Newman. Suffice to say, the tribunal dismisses the claim in such robust terms that at one point, when commenting on the evidence from Ms English, it even resorts to the use of double exclamation marks (see para 124). As Darren concludes, it is ‘a clear win for Lord Sugar and his companies, who really don’t come in for any criticism from the tribunal at all’.
Somewhat regrettably, however, Lord Sugar was quick to claim a moral as well as a legal victory, tweeting that the case represents ‘a victory for the law against the claim culture.’ And, in the Guardian, he is quoted as saying that the case is ‘representative of a new wave of claim culture where some employees file spurious actions regardless of whose reputation it may smear in the process’.
Which is so plain silly that you have to wonder how Lord Sugar ever got to run any economic enterprise bigger than a whelk stall.
Sure, Ms English’s claim was so lacking in merit that, as the Tribunal notes caustically, it ‘should never have been brought.’ Indeed, the Tribunal goes further, stating that Ms English was ‘ill advised [by her lawyers] to bring a claim and/or to continue it.’ In the circumstances, I would expect the Tribunal to receive an application for, and to award, substantial costs against Ms English and her legal team. If Ms English had ‘personal money problems’ before (see para 75), she’ll most likely have them in spades now.
But one case does not a culture make. The vast majority of employment tribunal claimants are not past winners of reality TV shows. They cannot hope to exert pressure on – or ‘blackmail’, as Lord Sugar puts it in the Guardian – their former employer by running to the likes of Max Clifford, and giving ‘exclusive’ interviews to tabloid newspapers. There will be no paparazzi at their tribunal hearing. In the real world, as distinct from the world of reality TV, claims such as that brought by the now surely unemployable Ms English are extremely rare. (And, let’s not forget, it was Lord Sugar himself who decided – after an unusually exhaustive selection process – to give Ms English a highly paid job).
As the quick-off-the-mark Darren Newman notes, this case was ‘clearly exceptional’. For all its faults – and the Coalition Government has already addressed many of them – the employment tribunal system is all that stands between millions of low paid, vulnerable workers and exploitation by the minority of rogue employers.
Lord Sugar says that he will raise this alleged ‘claim culture’ in the House of Lords. It must be hoped that, in relishing his moment of victory, Lord Sugar will not allow his wholly justified sense of vindication to damage an institution that badly needs more friends, not more enemies. It already has more than enough of the latter.
Richard Dunstan is a policy wonk who has worked for Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.