Thursday 14 February 2013 21.52 GMT, Guradian
Judge recuses herself after visit by police officers
Amardeep, left, and Vijay Begraj sought an employment tribunal hearing over alleged caste discrimination at the law firm where they worked. Photograph: Adam Gerrard
An employment tribunal hearing the first claim for unfair dismissal on the grounds of caste discrimination has collapsed after information handed to the judge by police led the judge to recuse herself from the case.
Vijay Begraj, a former practice manager at the Coventry solicitors firm Heer Manak, and his wife Amardeep, a former solicitor at the same firm, had claimed that they were discriminated against because he is from a lower Asian caste than she is.
Vijay Begraj is from a Dalit background – the caste formerly known as “untouchables” – while Amardeep is from the higher Jat caste, the same caste as their employers.
The tribunal, which sat for a total of 36 days, heard allegations that the couple had suffered caste-based discrimination, humiliation, victimisation and harassment as a result of their relationship.
Begraj claims a colleague told him that he was lucky to be a practice manager in the UK as his caste meant he would have been a cleaner in India. He also told the tribunal that he had been assaulted by two relatives of one of the firm’s partners and had been called derogatory names relating to his Dalit status. Heer Manak has described the claims as “ludicrous” and “outrageous”.
On 5 February, after sitting since August 2011 to consider 110 allegations, the tribunal was abandoned after the judge, Merry Cocks, recused herself in the wake of a private visit from two West Midlands police officers four months earlier.
The officers asked to speak to her on 19 October last year, a day after Davinder Prasad, general secretary of Caste Watch UK – who had given recently evidence at the tribunal for Mrs Begraj – told police that the windows of his home had been smashed.
After Cocks had told both parties of the police visit a week later, Heer Manak’s lawyers made an application for the tribunal to recuse itself on the grounds that the information handed over by the police may have given rise to bias.
Although Mr and Mrs Begraj’s legal team opposed the application, arguing that the tribunal was used to disregarding extraneous material, Cocks decided to recuse herself, adding that she was “very much aware of the consequences of this decision for all the parties”.
The couple’s solicitor, Jonathan Naylor, a partner at Shoosmiths, said that his clients were “extremely disappointed” by the decision and were considering an appeal. He said: “The actions of the police and the tribunal, completely beyond our clients’ control, appear to have deprived Mr and Mrs Begraj of a just resolution of their claims. We think it is a matter of great concern and regret that substantial time and costs, including significant amounts of taxpayers’ money, have seemingly been wasted.”
“The tribunal’s decision to disqualify itself leaves our clients without a fair conclusion to their serious complaints of caste-based discrimination, victimisation and harassment. Mr and Mrs Begraj are rightly concerned that, after two years of pursuing justice, they have been denied this during the last few days of the tribunal process,” he said.
“Such an outcome will surely deter other victims of discrimination from pursuing genuine claims.”
The judiciary of England and Wales confirmed that police had approached the judge and that she had “quite appropriately” decided to recuse herself “on the basis that it could lead to a perception of bias on the judge’s part”.
A spokesman for West Midlands police said that it was investigating a complaint relating to “the circumstances of police interaction” with the judge. The spokesman added: “The investigation is being carried out by the Professional Standards department of West Midlands police working with the Independent Complaints Commission.” It said the two officers concerned had not been suspended and were carrying on with their usual duties.