It’s tough as a litigant in person (LIP). Really tough.
I found myself juggling my PhD with a full-time job and preparing my case for tribunal, as well as all the other side dishes the compulsory menu of life presents.
I’ve put together a survival guide to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
1. Organisation is key.
From the very outset, I got organised. I brought folders, dividers and plastic wallets to file documents. I created a folder on my desktop titled “Unfair Dismissal” and overtime, this has grown to include a sub-folder for every stage of the litigation process, each hosting their own family of sub-folders.
2. Gather evidence from the word GO.
I began to compile a document containing evidence, two hours after I was dismissed. I took pictures of my staff card, my staff diary, my staff log, emails I sent to and received from staff members at the academy via my personal email address, the link to the video on youtube that I complained about, a screen grab of the video’s youtube content blocking, and a screen grab of the video’s 18+ age caution message. I strongly advise all litigants in person to gather every document and item that links them to their work place, even if you think it’s remotely linked. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.
All emails and correspondence you send in relation to your case and/or the mistreatment you experienced, should be stored on file. These emails and correspondence will more than likely form part of your evidence at court and are therefore highly significant.
3. Submit a Subject Access Request (SAR).
A SAR is an incredibly effective tool you can use to your advantage. Under the Data Protection Act 1998, organisations have to provide you with documents that contain your name or mention you. These include emails, texts, CCTV footage, data, vetting forms etc. Under the DPA organisations have 40 days to respond with your information. If they do not meet the 40 day deadline or mishandle your request, you can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Officer (ICO) and even take an organisation to the County Court and seek damages for mishandling your SAR.
I submitted a subject access request 3 weeks after I was dismissed and while I was still preparing to file my case at the tribunals. The first set of documents revealed were heavily redacted and a great deal of documents were still missing. I wrote to the academy a 9 times between October 2015 and May 2016 to recover missing documents and request the removal of redactions. I also complained about the way they dealt with my SAR to the ICO.
The information I discovered has been invaluable in strengthening my case. I discovered emails linking me to the Trojan Horse Affair, emails in which staff informally blacklisted me from working in schools again, and statements demonstrating victimisation and discrimination on the grounds of religion. I even discovered minutes to a Senior Management Team Meeting, which demonstrate the senior teachers at the school agreed with my concerns about the video being inappropriate for 11 year old children to view.
4. Accept that it might take 3 years or more.
I filed my case on 11th November 2015 and thought it wold all be over by April 2016. My first preliminary hearing took place on 1st February 2016 after which I attended an additional 6 preliminary hearings before I got to the full-hearing. When I finally got to the full hearing, which began on Monday 5th December 2016 and concluded on Friday 9th December 2016, I was told there was a risk it could go part-heard due to the sheer number of witnesses (10) that the respondents decided to call. I broke down on day 4 of the full hearing in court when the Judge told me it could go part-heard, which meant we would have to come back in March 2017, as this was the next time the tribunal would be available. I cried and cried and cried my eyes out. Then I wiped my black mascara tainted tears from my face, took a deep breath, and continued with cross examining the remaining 7 witnesses.
Thankfully, I finished the cross examination of 10 of their witnesses in 3 days and made final submissions. There was not enough time for a verdict but it will now be sent sent in writing, hopefully before the end of January.
Moral of the story: however long you think it will take or want it to take, it will take longer.
5. Do your research.
After gathering the evidence, I conducted research and produced an extended essay titled “Why my case qualified for Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.” This helped me to (a) feel confident, (b) realise the true merits of my case, and (c) construct my ET1 Claim Form by using the research as a solid foundation. One of the key findings that supported my reasonable belief that the viewing of 18+ footage breached a legal obligation to safeguard children was: minors are the group most at risk of committing suicide, and viewing suicide in the media increases the risk of copy-cat suicide. As a result, I strengthened my ability to apply the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA) 1998 due to it being potential breach of legal obligation to safeguard children, and placing the health and safety of individuals at risk.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t be afraid to write to the tribunal at any point to seek their assistance in clarifying something. The other side’s legal representatives won’t always be truthful or cooperative. Be ready to follow your instincts and ask questions when you’re unsure. You won’t lose anything. In fact, the tribunal will realise that you’re a litigant in person and be more prepared to help, and in your writing to the tribunal, they will have a record on file of your correspondence, which can count as evidence in the event that the respondent has behaved vexatiously.
7. Be persistent.
The crown jewel to my evidence, the minutes to the Senior Management Team were not provided to me on the first SAR request, was heavily redacted on the second and third requests, and only on the fourth request the redactions were removed. I refused to give up and contacted the ICO every time the school mishandled my SAR. You have to adopt a ‘broken record’ approach and be persistent. Don’t give up at the first try.
8. Attend public hearings.
Attending public hearings is incredibly helpful as you will be able to learn about court room etiquette (i.e. how to address the judge, when to sit and stand), the structure of the tribunal room, the sequence of the hearing, and cross-examination techniques, amongst others.
You can call your employment tribunal and enquire about when a case that is similar to your own, is being heard. They will be happy for you to attend as long as you provide prior notice. For me, having seven preliminary hearings prior to a full-hearing was incredibly helpful in building my confidence for the full-hearing. You don’t want to go through seven preliminary hearings just to build confidence, believe me. You’d be better to go with the former option.
9. Raise awareness.
There are many ways to raise awareness about your case. Some of the ways that I raised awareness are as follows:
- Writing to the Department for Education, Ofsted, Birmingham City Council, and my local MP.
- Issuing a press release and using the media as an effective tool to talk about the injustice I strongly feel I experienced.
- Start a petition via change.org. My petition can be found here.
- Use social media platforms such as Twitter, to share you story.
10. Believe in yourself, and in your case.
When I was first dismissed, I sought legal advice from a number of qualified professionals. I was told that I could only take the academy to court for wrongful dismissal and if I was successful, I’d get a maximum of a week’s wages as compensation. I told them that I was not motivated by monetary gains. I wanted justice. Sadly a strong feeling of wanting justice more than often doesn’t appeal to legal professionals and all of those I contacted refused to take my case on, as there wasn’t enough money to be made from it (they thought).
So I conducted research (as mentioned in point 5) and strengthened my case from a single claim, to four claims, including a Public interest disclosure claim, for which there is no cap on compensation. Monetary gain is no more important today than it was when I first sought legal assistance. What is important is my belief and my strong desire for justice.
Sometimes, you have to follow your gut instinct. Even qualified people in the field can get it wrong.