Racism charge against U.K. Law Society upheld

LONDON, JULY 6. In a damaging blow to its image, Britain's 175- year-old prestigious Law Society has been found guilty of race and sex bias by an employment tribunal which on Thursday ruled in favour of an Asian woman solicitor who had alleged that she had been discriminated against because of her racial origin and gender.

The society, which represents over 80,000 solicitors of England and Wales, was dragged to the tribunal by Ms. Kamlesh Bahl after she was forced to quit as its vice-president amid a controversy over her behaviour towards the staff. The Kenya-born Ms. Bahl, a former chairperson of the Equal Opportunities' Commission, was the first woman and Asian solicitor to become the society's vice- president two years ago and was one of its rising stars when she ran into rough weather.

When exactly her troubles began is not clear but shortly before the election for the society's president last summer - a job she coveted - five staff members complained that she ``bullied'' them and had created an ``unprecedented climate of fear''.

An independent inquiry by a retired law lord upheld the complaints against her and in what she described as ``public ritual humiliation'' she was stripped of her title as vice- president forcing her to resign. She challenged her dismissal before an employment tribunal claiming that it was unfair and a result of racism and sex bias.

After a year-long hearing, marked by bitter recrimination played out in the glare of the media, the tribunal dismissed her claim of unfair dismissal on the plea that she was not an employee of the society, but upheld her grievance that the manner in which her case was handled by the society following complaints about her behaviour smacked of race and sex prejudice.

In a 1,260-page judgment, the tribunal held that the society's then president, Mr. Robert Sayer, and its then secretary-general, Ms. Jane Betts, had racially and sexually discriminated against Ms. Bahl in the way they dealt with her case. They were found ``vicariously liable'' for discriminatory behaviour. It suggested that a similar case involving a white male may have been handled quite differently. The judgment pointed to a ``substantial element of deliberation in the acts they (Mr. Sayer and Ms. Betts) did that were detrimental to Kamlesh Bahl'' and ``to which no white person or man was subjected. ``Had the person complained of been a white person or male then Robert Sayer would at least have attempted to deal with the matter informally,'' the tribunal said.

The society, which may have to cough up to a million pounds in damages when compensation is announced, is the main regulatory body for solicitors and over seven per cent of its members are from ethnic groups. An official said there had never been a case of race or sex discrimination against it. The Society of Black Lawyers demanded a judicial inquiry into racial and gender prejudice which, it said, was widespread in the legal community. However, neither the Equal Opportunities Commission nor the Commission for Racial Equality wanted to comment saying they needed to read the judgment first.

The fact that the tribunal accused Ms. Bahl of lying under oath at one point while giving evidence was seized upon by the Law Society to claim that the verdict ``reflected no credit'' on her. ``The tribunal has found that in her evidence she lied deliberately and that she was not a witness to truth,'' the society in a statement said. It was reported to be contemplating reporting Ms. Bahl to the Office for Supervision of Solicitors for lying on oath.

The case, which sharply divided the legal community along ethnic lines, was described as a ``David and Goliath confrontation'' by Ms. Bahl who broke down after the verdict. ``Britain is a multicultural and multiracial society (and) in the 21st century institutions have got to come to terms with how they treat members who are different. We need to look at what happens when a woman reaches a position of power and leadership in Britain,'' she said. The verdict has been hailed as a ``landmark'' event that ``seriously damaged'' the society's reputation. But commentators also said that inasmuch as Ms. Bahl's also did not come through unscathed there were no real winners here, and the image of the entire profession stood somewhat dented.