Labor & Employment

Partner can sue own law firm as a whistleblower, top UK court rules


Rejecting a law firm’s argument that a partner is not an employee and hence can’t file a whistleblower suit, the United Kingdom’s top civil court Wednesday gave a green light for former partner Krista Bates Van Winkelhof to pursue such a case against Clyde & Co. concerning claimed corruption.

“One can effectively be one’s own boss and still be a ’worker,’” Supreme Court Judge Brenda Hale said in the court’s Wednesday opinion (PDF). The much-watched London case is expected to have an impact on legal and accounting firms throughout the country, Bloomberg reports.

“This case was about ensuring that lawyers, accountants, hedge-fund managers and a host of other professionals are protected against dismissal if they blow the whistle,” said partner Joanna Blackburn of Mishcon de Reya, who represents Van Winkelhof. “High-profile collapses like Enron and Arthur Andersen demonstrate why we need partners to speak out if they spot wrongdoing.”

Attorneys may have a legal or ethical duty to report wrongdoing, as Blackburn pointed out, yet can be fired for doing so if they are not given protection as whistleblowers, Legal Business reported in March.

The court did not rule on the merits of Van Winkelhof’s suit, which will now be considered by an employment tribunal. She contends she was treated badly and eventually dismissed from the partnership after reporting, while working in Tanzania in 2010, that the managing partner of an African law firm had participated in money-laundering and bribery in order to get clients and win cases, the court’s opinion explains. She also claims pregnancy discrimination.

“We strongly deny Ms. Bates Van Winkelhof’s still untested allegations,” said Clyde & Co. in a written statement. “We contend the process of her removal from the partnership was set in place before her pregnancy was known, and before her disclosures.”

The case was brought under the Employment Rights Act of 1996.

The Law Society Gazette and the Lawyer also have stories.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com (2007): “Sidley to Pay $27.5 M in EEOC Partner Case”

ABAJournal.com (2012): “Kelley Drye Settlement with EEOC Offers No Guidance On When a Partner May Be Deemed an Employee”

ABAJournal.com (2012): “Canadian Appeals Court Dismisses Law Partner’s Age Discrimination Case, Says He’s Not an Employee”

Legal Post (Financial Post): “Supreme Court of Canada to release ruling in mandatory retirement case on Thursday”

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