Employment law corner

12:28 Thursday 14 March 2013  Written by Kaajal Nathwani

Would you be Lord Sugar's lackey for £100,000?

Lord SugarRead all about it!

As Lord Sugar walked into the tribunal building, he pushed the revolving doors with an air of authority like he owned the place. On second thoughts, he probably does. The corporate giant was hauled into the tribunal ring full on into a slanging match with apprentice Stella English who pirouetted to the top in the class of apprentice 2010. Her gripe against the almighty? That her role was far from the glamour and the prowess she had expected after winning the reality TV show. Promise of a £100,000 a year executive role in one of Lord Sugar’s companies was a ‘sham’ and that in reality she claims she was an ‘overpaid lackey’.

I was there to witness the hostility between the former ‘master’ and ‘apprentice’. Where there was once a look of longing to be part of the multi billion pound corporation pioneered by Sugar, and be mentored by one of the most successful entrepreneurs, it was replaced with a steely look of determination and disgust at having been duped into a job that was in her view misrepresented.

The rise and fall of the apprenticeship

This latest ‘celebrity’ case comes at a time when the prime minister has said he wants work-based training to sit "at the heart of our mission to rebuild the economy" with forecasts suggesting apprentices could add up to £3.4bn a year in economic gain. Will this make people contemplating and even offering apprenticeships think twice?

Claims

English is claiming that she was ‘constructively dismissed’. But what does this even mean? Did Lord Sugar sack her? If he didn’t, how can she say she was dismissed?

The notion of this claim is quite different to the classic dismissal. It occurs where the employer does not dismiss the employee, but the employee resigns and can show that they were entitled to do so by virtue of the employer's conduct.

Employers are often found to be in repudiatory breach of an express term or an implied term of the contract.  Breaches can be one-off acts or a continuing course of conduct extending over a period, culminating in a "last straw, a result of which can cause an employee to resign.

English will have to identify what the breach of contract was, support her claim with evidence and if her facts are accepted and deemed sufficient in law to amount to a repudiatory breach of contract, her claim will succeed. If she is relying on the concept of ‘last straw’ incident, she will have to show that she resigned in response to a series of breaches which culminated in her position being untenable, although each of the incidents do not have to be related.

Lackey

Changing an employee's contractual duties, whether this is done by removing duties or requiring the employee to perform new ones, may be likely to constitute a repudiatory breach. English claims she was never given the duties that she expected and her role was in fact ‘less’ than what it should have been. In this case, the tribunal will have to look at:

What were her duties under the contract

The extent to which the duties were changed

Whether Lord Sugar was entitled, under the contract, to change the duties.

Whether the changes were sufficient to constituted a repudiatory breach.

Boardroom anger spills over into court room

Starting what she hoped would be a career under the wing of Lord Sugar, learning all the tricks of the trade, English fast realised that working for Viglen, one of Lord Sugar’s super companies was not all that it had promised to be. She suggests Lord Sugar was reluctant to let her have any integral role as would be expected of an apprentice earning £100,000 a year. English’s argument at tribunal this week was: ‘as Ms English was Lord Sugar's apprentice, she had the right to expect 'a degree of mentoring' during her time working for him - something she alleges was lacking’.

It has been suggested that English was hired by Lord Sugar as a PR incentive with no real commitment to a ‘real’ role. He is alleged to have said to her during one of many alleged outbursts:

"Look, if you think Lord Sugar is sh**ing himself and that's why you're here, that's where you're mistaken – I don't give a s**t. I've met my obligations to you. I did it for the BBC and the integrity of the show and a bit of my own PR."

English further argued that for there to be 'a relationship of trust and confidence' between an employer and employee, both sides must consider the job to be 'a genuine occupation'. In the event that the role was not real, there was no genuine occupation this in turn entitled English to resign.

It’s not over till…

With the case ending this week, judgment is expected to be reserved with the outcome delivered in the next few months. Whatever the result, one thing must be remembered that constructive dismissal is a notoriously hard claim to succeed in. The burden of proof rests firmly on the shoulders of the employee to show that the situation was so bad, that it was reasonable to resign and treat yourself as having been ‘constructively dismissed’. Although any award might not put a large dent in Lord Sugar’s pocket, one thing is for sure; his pride will take a battering if victory knocks on Stella’s door.

For advice in respect of Constructive Dismissal or any Employment related any other employment law related issues please contact Kaajal Nathwani on kaajalnathwani@boltburdon.co.uk or 0207 288 4736.

Bolt Burdon is a full service law firm who pride ourselves on giving clear and accurate costs advice at the right times so that there are no surprises. This transparent approach, combined with the quality of service provided, helps us ensure that we give every client value for money. For full details see www.boltburdon.co.uk

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