Lawyers in e-mail row face censure for discrimination

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The London law firm that was sued by a black secretary after a solicitor sent an e-mail requesting that she be replaced by a "busty blonde" is facing disciplinary action for breaches of the race and sex discrimination rules.

A report by the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), the regulator of 100,000 solicitors in England and Wales, recommends reprimanding two lawyers and their senior partner in a case that has resulted in a compensation payout of up to £10,000.

The OSS investigation follows an exchange of messages sent hours after Rachel Walker, a legal secretary, had handed in her resignation from the Charles Russell law firm.

One of the solicitors wrote to his colleague: "Can we go for a real fit busty blonde this time? She can't be any more trouble and at least it would provide some entertainment!!"

The two lawyers, one a partner in the firm's commercial department, wrote letters apologising for their behaviour. Clive Hopewell, the partner, dismissed the e-mail as "a childish joke", which he hoped would not "sour a good working relationship", and offered the secretary the chance to "chat" about it over lunch. Adam Dowdney, the solicitor who wrote the e-mail two years ago, described it as a "senseless and thoughtless joke". He expressed his hope that all those involved could put the incident behind them.

Ms Walker said she was so upset by the e-mail that she sought help from her doctor, who signed her off work.

The discrimination claim was settled without any admission of liability by the firm.

The OSS caseworker investigating the subsequent complaints of race and sex discrimination has recommended that both solicitors receive a reprimand for breaching the Solicitors' Anti-Discrimination Rule 1995.

The report also calls for the senior partner of Charles Russell, Laurance Watt, to be reprimanded. The investigator said neither lawyer was disciplined by the firm and there was no evidence to support the firm's claim that the allegations were properly investigated. "While all partners are responsible for operating a policy to avoid discrimination, I consider that Mr Watt as senior partner should be held accountable in this matter," the caseworker said. "I suggest the adjudicator expresses disapproval of Mr Watt's conduct."

An OSS spokesman said the adjudicator's final decision was not bound by the caseworker's recommendations.

Lawrence Davies, chairman of the Employment Law Practitioners' Association, said: "Racism and sexism must be removed from the City. The onus is on the City firms and the Law Society to effect real change within the working environment."