The Law Society is facing a £1m claim for sex and race discrimination that threatens to plunge the solicitors' governing body into a bitter internal war.
Simrit Parmar, a policy adviser employed by the Law Society, accuses senior management of prolonged bullying and belittling behaviour towards Asian female staff. Ms Parmar, 37, also alleges that she was encouraged to bring a complaint against Kamlesh Bahl, the society's Asian vice-president forced from office after allegations of bullying in 2000. That case cost the Law Society of England and Wales an estimated £2.5m and lasted four and a half years.
In her claim document, Ms Parmar accuses Law Society management of having a "racist stereotypical view" of staff. She says that during the Bahl affair the Law Society developed a "pattern" of encouraging Asian staff to bring complaints against the then vice-president.
She alleges: "It is safer and more effective for it to encourage Asian staff members to falsely complain against their own race, because that complaint is less likely to be perceived as racist and to reveal the underlying hostility of certain white managers."
She also accuses her bosses of encouraging co-workers to make complaints against her. After an internal inquiry found the complaints to be unproven, she claims she was "segregated" from the three members of staff who brought them.
The Law Society has hired the top employment law barrister Nicholas Underhill QC to defend the claim, which opens at an employment tribunal in central London on Monday. Mr Underhill acted for the City bank Merrill Lynch when it was sued for a record £7m by Stephanie Villalba. Ms Villalba lost her equal pay claim but won her action for unfair dismissal.
Ms Parmar is being represented by Lawrence Davies, a consultant solicitor with the London-based firm Imran Khan and Partners.
In her action, Ms Parmar says that one senior member of staff described Ms Bahl to her as a "typical Brahmin Übermeister" - a high-caste overlord. Ms Parmar said she felt "sickened" by this comment, which she alleges was an "act of direct race discrimination".
She said that at a party in 2001, the same manager, who had since left the Society, said Asians were "reliable little workers, and I was lucky I was not African-Caribbean because everyone knew they were lazy and had attitude problems".
Ms Parmar says that when she brought complaints against members of staff, her managers trivialised them and suggested she had mental health problems.
Ms Parmar, an adviser on alternative dispute resolution in family law, is seeking an estimated £1m in punitive damages. She claims that over her five years at the Law Society she was racially and sexually discriminated against, ostracised by co-workers, run down by managers and denied proper support.
She also alleges that when her father was terminally ill she was refused compassionate leave. When she did take time off to care for him in the days before he died, she was called to a disciplinary meeting where, she alleges, she was "bullied and harassed ... for my absence".
Yesterday a Law Society spokeswoman said: "An employee of the Law Society, Simret Parmar, has made claims alleging disability, race and sex discrimination. The Society denies these claims and will be defending them at the employment tribunal."Reuse content