Law firm faces record £6.8m payout for sex bias

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The Independent Online

A leading City law firm is facing a record £6.85m sex discrimination claim after a tribunal ruled that it had blocked the careers of two women solicitors.

If their claim is met, it would be the biggest of its kind and could lead to a string of other cases against City firms.

Sian Heard and Sian Fellows are seeking more than £3m each in compensation after an employment tribunal ruled that they had been prevented from gaining promotion by the "glass ceiling" at Sinclair Roche and Temperley.

The tribunal heard that Sinclair had created a "discriminatory culture" which put profits before equality and covered up complaints of sexual harassment.

The Central London Employment Tribunal panel upheld the women's claim after an eight-day hearing and will rule on the level of compensation in the new year.

Ms Heard and Ms Fellows, who are both from London and in their 40s, say they missed out on earnings of £270,000 a year because they were not made senior partners at the firm.

If successful, their claim would eclipse the previous biggest sex discrimination payout of £2.2m to Kate Bleasdale, an entrepreneur.

Ms Heard and Ms Fellows joined Sinclair's shipping litigation department in the late 1980s and rose to become the only female junior partners.

In 2000, Ms Fellows was ranked 27th top fee-earner out of 107 partners, with Ms Heard one place below her. But despite their success, the two women found it impossible to gain promotion to posts as senior equity partners. Only one woman has ever been made a senior partner at Sinclair since it was formed in 1934. The tribunal heard how one woman was told that she had missed out on promotion because "to some partners ... it was inconceivable that a man will take orders from a woman".

Allegations that a senior partner sexually harassed four female employees at a Christmas party were "swept under the carpet". The same partner was also reported to have told some employees: "The firm should sack you all and get in better-looking recruits than you old bags."

Giving evidence to the tribunal hearing, which ended last week, Jeff Morgan, managing partner at Sinclair, admitted: "When I am seeking to increase profits in a business context, equal opportunities are secondary."

Ms Heard and Ms Fellows eventually left the firm after realising that their route to promotion was blocked.

Sinclair has since merged with another company, Stephenson Harwood.

Upholding the women's claim, the tribunal panel said: "Ms Heard and Ms fellows were high performers. Both were ambitious and hard working with aspirations to partnership. We are satisfied that both would have found it easier to progress at Sinclair had they been male."

It is not the first time that Sinclair has been accused of sex discrimination. It settled a string of cases in the 1990s. Other leading firms in the City have also been exposed for routine sexism against their female employees.

The Equal Opportunities Commission is planning to launch a major campaign on pay differences between men and women early next year.

Ian Gatt QC, for Sinclair Roche and Temperley, said the compensation claim was "staggeringly high and unrealistic". The company is to appeal.