The University of Cumbria has been ordered to pay a marine biologist almost £130,000 after it embarked on a redundancy exercise that was ‘tainted with discrimination’ while she was pregnant.
Mrs Law was employed on a fixed-term contract in a role that was funded by a charitable trust. The funding for this role was set to expire in July 2020, but there was a possibility further funding could be secured.
She found out she was pregnant in January 2020 and was told she had an increased risk of pre-eclampsia, which could be brought on by stress.
When Covid hit, the possibility of securing more funding for her role vanished, as the charitable trust wished to direct its resources into Covid-related relief work.
In May 2020 an email from the the university’s vice chancellor sought to reassure staff that there would be no redundancies due to Covid-19 and that risk assessments would be done to ensure that any cost-cutting measures did not disproportionately affect vulnerable groups.
That month, the HR department emailed Law’s line manager to note that her fixed-term contract was due to expire soon. The tribunal heard that Law’s line manager, Mrs Lowthian, approached this process in a “very blunt way” and did not consider whether there was an ongoing need for the work carried out by Law after the funding expired. Part of her role involved outreach and recruitment activities at schools and colleges.
Pregnancy and redundancy
There was no meaningful discussion about redeployment, the tribunal heard.
Law also claimed that Lowthian made “inappropriate” comments about the potential for Law to experience financial difficulty, as she was aware Law’s husband was undergoing a redundancy process with an unrelated employer. She volunteered information about securing child benefit and sourcing second-hand baby clothes. Although Law found these comments “weird”, the tribunal found they had been well-meaning.
The claimant’s redundancy was confirmed in June 2020. She appealed the decision, referring to the email that stated the university would not allow vulnerable staff to be disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 response, and said she considered herself to be vulnerable because of her pregnancy. Her appeal was dismissed.
Although the tribunal found that Law was not selected for redundancy because of her pregnancy, it was not able to conclude that pregnancy played no part in the university’s decision to dismiss her.
Employment judge Joanne Dunlop said the decision to make her redundant was “predetermined” and “tainted by discrimination in a way which is unlawful”.
The judgment, published in April, says: “We are not persuaded that that initial selection for redundancy necessarily meant that Mrs Law’s employment at the University had to come to an end.
“The evidence in this case demonstrates that Mrs Law herself was given further roles when earlier roles or tranches of funding had come to an end, including a short-term extension to her contract when her future was uncertain. It also demonstrates that roles were found for other people whose circumstances were also changing during summer 2020.
“It all has the air of a game of musical chairs in which, entirely coincidentally, the music stops just as the pregnant Mrs Law, with her four-year record of good service, adaptable skills and excellent feedback, is the one left furthest away from the remaining seats.”
Following a hearing to discuss compensation, the tribunal last week decided that the university should pay Law £129,133.39 in compensation for unfair dismissal and discrimination.
A University of Cumbria spokesperson said: “We apologise to Mrs Law for the distress we have caused her.
“The university prides itself in its employment practices and the support it gives its staff. Managed by the university as a short-term contract coming to an end, this case has highlighted wider issues relating to Mrs Law’s pregnancy which we did not properly recognise at the time.
“The university accepts the tribunal’s conclusion; there are lessons for us to learn, to help ensure that we achieve the consistency of application to our processes in the future.”