A judge has ruled that two News of the World journalists convicted of phone-hacking have the right to proceed with "unfair dismissal" claims against their former employer.
James Weatherup (pictured, Reuters) and Neville Thurlbeck are suing News Group Newspapers after losing their jobs in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal.
The publisher applied for the claims to be struck out of court, accusing the journalists of being “vexatious” and claiming they have no prospect of success. But that argument has been rejected by Judge Brian Doyle.
He said in a judgment seen by Press Gazette: “Are the claims vexatious or an abuse of process? I do not accept that these claims are being pursued with no expectation of success.”
Ian Edmondson is also suing News Group Newspapers for unfair dismissal, and the publisher has applied for this claim to be thrown out of court as well. But the judge has adjourned this pre-trial decision, citing the fact that Edmondson is currently in prison.
Former news editor Weatherup and chief reporter Thurlbeck (below, Reuters) were both sacked on 2 September 2011 for “alleged gross misconduct”.
After the last edition of the News of the World was printed on 10 July that year Weatherup was told on 26 July to expect redundancy and he indicated he would be willing to accept this for a payout.
On 8 August Thurlbeck was advised that he would be made redundant also and the publisher “offered him a redundancy package”, the judge noted.
According to the judge, both dismissals “appeared to rely upon” recommendations from the Management and Standards Committee, which was set up to investigate the company in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal.
Weatherup appealed his dismissal on 7 September 2011 and Thurlbeck requested reasons for his dismissal on the same day. They both claim these requests were rejected.
Both claim to have maintained innocence on phone-hacking after their dismissals, and were arrested over the offences on 24 July 2012.
Weatherup pleaded guilty to phone-hacking on 15 July 2013 and was sentenced to four months imprisonment, suspended for one year, this summer. Thurlbeck pleaded guilty on 6 June this year and was sentenced to six months in prison. He did not serve his full sentence.
The judge said: “Reduced to their essentials, the claimants’ complaints of unfair dismissal are that, prior to their summary dismissals on 2 September 2011, they had not been subject to any allegations by their employer that they had committed act of gross misconduct.
“What they did, they assert, was part of the culture of the organisation.
“They had been anticipating dismissal by reason of redundancy, with a suitable redundancy package.
“The responded provided no reasons for or particulars of the dismissals. It carried out no investigation of the matter. It followed no procedure before deciding to dismiss.
“It may be that the respondent was placed in a difficult position by the ongoing police investigations and the prospect of possible criminal proceedings.
“Be that as it may, the responded appeared to rely upon a recommendation to dismiss the claimants made by the Management and Standards Committee that the parent group had established at arms length in the aftermath of the phone-hacking allegations.
“Whatever the evidence of wrongdoing the MSC might have had in relation to the claimants, that evidence was not shared with the respondent at the time of its decision to dismiss nor subsequently with the claimants.”
But Judge Doyle noted that they did plead guilty to phone-hacking and that the company may be able to successfully argue that “a proper procedure would have been utterly useless or futile, and that therefore the dismissals were fair.”
News Group Newspapers applied to strike out the employment tribunal claims, saying they were “vexatious as they are an abuse of process” and “have no reasonable prospect of success”. According to the judge, Chris Jeans QC, for the publisher, said the claims are not “worth the candle and the wick” and argued that they are “scandalous”.
The judge ruled that the claims should not be thrown out of court and said they should be handed down to the regional employment judge for further case management.
“I am unable to discern that they are being pursued in order to harass the respondent or for some other improper motive or collateral purpose,” he said.
“On the face of the pleadings, and without making any findings to this effect, the respondent did not provide a reason for the dismissals at the time of the dismissals.
“It relied upon the recommendations of the MSC. It had carried out no investigation itself.
“The claimants had no opportunity to know the particulars of their alleged gross misconduct, although they would be well aware of the context.”
After dismissing the suggestion that the claims are “vexatious”, the judge added: “I consider that there is a chance, and more than a fanciful one, that the claimants will be able to show that the respondent did not carry out a fair procedure in deciding to dismiss them and that they might be able to obtain a funding that their complaints of unfair dismissal are well-founded.”
Weatherup told Press Gazette it has taken three years to win "round one” against News Group Newspapers, thanking the National Union of Journalists for its support, and said he is “prepared to go the distance – whatever it takes”.
He said: “News Group Newspapers have treated me and my colleagues like dirt throughout the last three years. They tried to sell us down the river after doing their bidding, but we are not going away.
“On the day I was due to receive a redundancy payment I was sacked on the spot, without warning. I was not told why and I was refused an appeal.
“They then employed a hotshot QC against us and he tried to claim that our claim had no chance of success and was vexatious. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“News Group tried to bully us into submission, saying we could be liable for their substantial costs if we didn't quit the action.
“I personally have written and e-mailed Rupert Murdoch three times, but neither he nor his office have had the decency to reply to any of my letters – despite working for him for the best part of 20 years.”
He added: said: "I would like to thank the NUJ and my legal team for their continued support and advice over the past three years."
A News UK spokesman said: "Due to active legal proceedings it is not appropriate to make any comments on this case."