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In the case of Curless v Shell International Limited [2019] EWCA Civ 1710 the Court of Appeal held that the contents of an email from lawyers to their client was inadmissible due to legal advice professional privilege.

The facts Curless v Shell International Limited

Michael Curless (the ‘Claimant’) was employed by the Shell International Ltd (the ‘Respondent’) as a solicitor from 30 January 1990 until his dismissal on 31 January 2017. The Claimant suffered from Type 2 Diabetes and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.  From 2011 there were ongoing concerns about the Claimant’s performance at work. The Claimant claimed that measures taken by the Respondent amounted to disability discrimination and/or a failure to make reasonable adjustments. The Claimant submitted his first claim to the Employment Tribunal (the ‘ET’) on 14 August 2015.  On 2 January 2016 he raised a grievance. In both he asserted that he had been subjected to disability discrimination. A grievance hearing took place on 8 March 2016 and an outcome letter was received on 15 June 2016. 

From April 2016 onwards the Respondent announced a program of voluntary redundancy. Having been unsuccessful in applying for certain roles, the Claimant was placed in a “redundancy consultation process”.  On or about 19 May 2016 the Claimant overheard a conversation in the Old Bank of England public house on Fleet Street. The conversation was the subject of a claim of legal professional privilege. The Claimant gave evidence that a group of professionally dressed people including two women in their 30s or 40s came into the pub. One of the women mentioned dealing with a complaint by a senior lawyer at the Respondent. The woman had mentioned that a lawyer at the Respondent had brought a disability discrimination complaint. The woman said that there was a good opportunity to manage the Claimant out by severance or redundancy as there was a big reorganisation underway as a result of the Respondent’s acquisition of another company.

The overheard conversation in the Old Bank of England pub was relied upon by the Claimant to interpret an email which he was sent anonymously in the last week to ten days of October 2016. The Claimant was sent a print out of the email in the post. The email was marked “Legally Privileged and Confidential”. The anonymous sender had added a handwritten note to the Claimant at the bottom of the email. The email was sent on 29 April 2016 by A, a senior lawyer, to B, a lawyer assigned to the Respondent. The Claimant claimed that the e-mail contained advice on how to commit unlawful victimisation by seeking to use (and ultimately using) the redundancy/restructuring programme as a cloak to dismiss the Claimant.  As such, the Claimant submitted it was not protected because it fell foul of what is called the iniquity principle. Pursuant to the iniquity principle legal professional privilege may be disapplied where it is intended to act as a cloak for a crime or fraud.  The Respondent’s position was that even if this interpretation of the e-mail was true, which it denied, it did not fall within the ambit of iniquity and was therefore privileged.  The Respondent terminated the employment of the Claimant allegedly by reason of redundancy by three months’ notice ending on 31 January 2017. The Claimant submitted his second claim to the ET on 3 March 2017 alleging further disability discrimination, victimisation and unfair dismissal.

The decision of the Employment Tribunal

The ET held that the e-mail dated 29 April 2016 contained legal advice aimed at avoiding, not evading possible legal action and was therefore privileged.  They went on the hold that that the e-mail did not disclose a prima facie case of iniquity.  With regards to the conversation in the pub, the ET held that to qualify as an iniquity, the conduct must be akin to fraud.  Whilst discrimination needed to be considered seriously, it was a tort and was therefore not excepted by the iniquity principle.

The decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal

The Claimant appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (the ‘EAT’) on two grounds.  Firstly, he claimed that the ET had erred by failing to rule that there was a strong prima facie case that the e-mail recorded advice for the purpose of victimising or discriminating against him.  He argued that the e-mail contained advice on how to seize the opportunity of a redundancy exercise to dismiss the Claimant. The redundancy exercise, if done carefully, could be used as a cloak to achieve this. The Claimant submitted that the Respondent had already formed a wish to terminate his employment and pointed out that he had lodged his first ET1 claiming disability discrimination. The advice recounted in the email gave advice that it was worth considering making the Claimant redundant in the wider exercise or face an impasse and proceedings with no obvious resolution.  He also submitted that the email did not record genuine advice on redundancy. There were two other lawyers at the level of the Claimant and there was no mention of them but only of “the individual”, obviously referring to the Claimant. If advice had been given on a genuine redundancy selection exercise it was curious that no mention was made of others who may be selected.

The EAT agreed with the Claimant and held that the e-mail could be interpreted as recording legal advice that the genuine redundancy exercise could be used as a cloak to dismiss the Claimant to avoid his continuing complaints and difficulties with his employment which were said by him to be related to his disability.

The Claimant’s second ground of appeal was that the ET had erred in holding that victimising or discriminating against him by dismissing him was insufficiently serious to be covered by the iniquity principle.

The Respondent’s argued that there was a difference between disguising a breach of a fiduciary duty (which would be covered by the iniquity principle) and a breach of mutual trust and confidence in an employment relationship (which, they argued, was a lesser category of wrong).  The EAT disagreed.  They held that if the advice in the email of 29 April 2016 had gone no further than “you may select the Claimant, an employee with a disability, for redundancy, but you run the risk of a claim by him” it would not have reached the high threshold required to disapply legal advice privilege. However, the email of 29 April 2016 recorded advice on how to cloak a dismissal for redundancy dismissal of the Claimant for making complaints of disability discrimination and for asking for reasonable adjustments which will continue if there is “ongoing employment”. A strong prima facie case had been established that what was advised was not only an attempted deception of the Claimant but also, if persisted in, deception of an Employment Tribunal in likely and anticipated legal proceedings. The email did not record any advice on neutral selection criteria for redundancy. It concentrated exclusively on how the redundancy could be used to rid the Respondent of ongoing allegations of discrimination by the Claimant and of underperformance which he stated are related to his disability and failure to make reasonable adjustments.

Both aspects of the Claimant’s appeal were upheld.  The Respondent appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal upheld the Respondent’s appeal when they held that the Claimant could not rely on the leaked email or overheard conversation in the pub to support his Employment Tribunal claim.  The Court of Appeal held that the Respondent was not acting unfairly and so the paragraphs did not meet the ‘iniquity principle’, which would have made them admissible.  In a joint judgment the three Court of Appeal judges agreed with the Employment Tribunal that the email contained the sort of advice which employment lawyers give ‘day in, day out’ and was not an indication of the Respondent’s solicitors acting in an underhand or iniquitous way.

With regards to the overheard conversation in the pub, the Court of Appeal held that as it had happened some two weeks after the e-mail was sent and because there was no evidence that the women heard making the comments had ever had sight of the e-mail it could not be relied upon as an aid to interpreting the disputed email and therefore was also inadmissible.

Our solicitors’ views on the case of Curless v Shell International Limited

Sacha Barrett, a Senior Associate in the employment department at Redmans, made the following comment on the case: “An interesting point which arose as a result of this case was that the Court of Appeal refused to make an anonymity order in respect of the appeal (one had been in place of the Employment Appeal tribunal hearing). The Court of Appeal confirmed the general rule that a hearing is in public and it will usually only be in exceptional circumstances that an exception to that rule will be justified and they held there was no such justification in this case’.

The decision of the Court of Appeal in Curless v Shell International Limited [2019] EWCA Civ 1710 can be found here.

About

Redmans Employment Team deal with employment matters for both employers and employees, including drafting employment contracts and policies, advising employers and employees on compromise agreements, handling day-to-day HR issues, advising on restructures, and handling Employment Tribunal cases for both employers and employees Call 020 3397 3603 to speak to one of the members of our employment team or email us on enquiries@redmans.co.uk. Redmans have offices in Richmond, Chiswick, Hammersmith, Fulham, Kingston, Wimbledon, Ealing, Kings Cross and Marylebone (meetings strictly by appointment only).

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