A lawyer who said she was fired after reporting corruption won the right to sue as a whistle-blower after the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that legal protections apply to partners in law and accounting firms.
The Supreme Court said in a ruling today that tens of thousands of professionals in partnerships were protected by the rules. Law firm Clyde & Co. LLP argued that Krista Bates Van Winkelhof couldn’t claim whistle-blower status because she was a partner in the business, not an employed worker.
“One can effectively be one’s own boss and still be a ’worker,’” Supreme Court Judge Brenda Hale said in London. The rules covering whistle-blowing may be “particularly applicable to businesses and professions operating within the tightly regulated fields of financial and legal services.”
Limited Liability Partnerships allow members to share in the profits of a business without having to repay all its debts if it fails. There are about 60,000 LLPs in the U.K. including some of the largest law and accounting firms, and companies managing private equity and hedge funds.
“This case was about ensuring that lawyers, accountants, hedge-fund managers and a host of other professionals are protected against dismissal if they blow the whistle,” Van Winkelhof’s lawyer, Joanna Blackburn, said in an e-mail. “High-profile collapses like Enron and Arthur Andersen demonstrate why we need partners to speak out if they spot wrongdoing.”
The judges didn’t rule on whether Van Winkelhof had a valid case, and Clyde & Co. said it denied her allegations. A specialist employment tribunal will decide whether she is entitled to damages for unfair treatment.
Van Winkelhof was working in Tanzania when she reported in 2010 that an African lawyer working in association with the Clyde & Co. was involved in bribery and money laundering. She sued after being suspended and expelled from the partnership in 2011 and also says she faced discrimination because she was pregnant.
“We strongly deny Ms. Bates Van Winkelhof’s still untested allegations,” Clyde & Co. said in a statement. “We contend the process of her removal from the partnership was set in place before her pregnancy was known, and before her disclosures.”
The case is: Clyde & Co. LLP and another (Respondents) v Winkelhof (Appellant), the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, UKSC 2012/0229