Isabella Freeman, the council’s £115,000 a year head of legal, has been something of town hall phantom in recent weeks. Her presence has been felt in the colder and gossipy corridors of Mulberry Place, but as a physical form, she’s not really been seen.
This morning, however, as daylight broke over Anchorage House opposite the town hall, she reappeared–and the three large bags of files she was carrying gave us a clue as to what she’s been up to during her time off work on full pay.
It’s not unusual for a lawyer to be at an Employment Tribunal, of course, but this being Tower Hamlets, there’s always a catch. Ms Freeman, who has recently returned to work, is not defending the council against an aggrieved employee (and there have been plenty of those over the years): this time, she’s the one suing.
The exact details of her case are still unknown because today’s hearing, as Judge Jonathan Ferris himself worried, was “a public hearing in secret”. Due to what even the judge said was a convenient alliance between Ms Freeman, the council and their respective lawyers, the public gallery was barred from seeing any of the witness statements and other documents that were constantly referred to and read quietly during the three hours of legal wrangling.
It means I can’t tell you what Ms Freeman is actually complaining about.
That said, Judge Ferris, who has seen all the documents, sighed he’s pretty much none the wiser either.
“I’m struggling to understand where the thrust of the claimant’s case is,” he said in answer to a request by the council’s barrister John Bowers QC to have the case struck out.
Mr Bowers said: “The claimant is a senior lawyer and she is being advised by a QC. We were expecting some feeling of what this case was about. It should not go to trial because it’s chaotic.”
Judge Ferris: “I don’t know about chaotic, but it looks pretty feeble.”
Ouch! “Chaotic”, “feeble”? Anyone who’s had the pleasure of receiving an ever-so-measured and carefully proofed email threat from Ms Freeman will surely know that accusation is really, really just not fair.
And that’s what her barrister Peter Oldham QC said as well. “That’s not fair. We feel we have a strong case.”
Well, he’ll get his chance to improve it. Judge Ferris ruled against the council’s ‘striking out’ application and set a hearing date for late autumn.
So, what is the case all about? Ms Freeman feels she has been discriminated in some way and her complaint is very much connected to the incorrect legal advice allegedly given to the human resources committee during last year’s costly failure to appoint a new chief executive. A fuller account of that can be read here, here and here.
Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s team have claimed the failure to appoint regeneration director Aman Dalvi has already cost the council in excess of £100,000.
If Ms Freeman is successful, that figure will rise massively. As well as engaging John Bowers QC, who is regarded as one of the country’s top barristers in employment, the council has also hired the biggest (and possibly most expensive) name in employment law for local government: Mark Greenburgh of Wragge & Co solicitors (and a former leader of Buckinghamshire County Council). Talk about aiming howitzers at their own head of legal..
So, if Ms Freeman loses, she’ll face an almighty bill for costs.
Will she blink? (Come to think of it, can she?)