Two groundsmen sacked from their jobs at Hull’s KCOM Stadium for gross misconduct have successfully crowdfunded the first stage of their unfair dismissal claim.
Mark Harrison and Darrell Cook have worked at the ground since 1988 and 1991 respectively. Their employer, Superstadium Management Company (SMC), dismissed them for the alleged state of the stadium’s pitch, according to the men’s page on CrowdJustice.
Their employment tribunal application is one of a handful of workplace disputes where claimants have turned to crowdfunding. Court fees have increased to as much as £1,200 in the past two years, resulting in a 70 per cent drop in ET cases. Just last week, the Conservative party manifesto was ridiculed by employment lawyers for promising to expand workers’ rights while keeping tribunal fees at a level that acted as a barrier to enforcement.
Ted Flanagan, head of employment at Gosschalks, is acting for the two groundsmen. The solicitor had only just become aware of CrowdJustice when he was approached for help.
Flanagan said crowdfunding could be useful in some cases where clients can generate enough momentum, especially via social media, but he doubted it could realistically fill the gap left by the withdrawal of legal aid. ‘I can’t imagine it replacing legal aid in all but the most exceptional cases of wider national interest,’ he told Solicitors Journal.
Harrison and Cook raised their initial £5,000 target within 46 hours of setting up their page. This has covered legal fees for preparing the case and starting proceedings, including a £500 issue fee. They’re now looking to raise a total of £20,000 by 17 June.
Flanagan is hopeful. He said pledges appeared to have come mostly from fans of Hull City football club and Hull FC, the rugby league club that also uses the ground. ‘These two are very well known in the city, there’s lots of interest about their case locally,’ he commented.
As a firm, he added, the crowdfunding process raised some unexpected questions. ‘We had to provide solid reassurance to CrowdJustice about our involvement, including details about our client accounts, and we had to put in a fair amount of work, including by our own money laundering reporting officer and even a specialist consultant.’
Funds raised through CrowdJustice go directly to the lawyers’ client account and the digital platform – technically a third-party funder under the SRA handbook – has a strict diligence process in relation to compliance systems in place at law firms involved in crowdfunded cases.
Cook was dismissed on 18 April and Harrison the next day. Their dismissal came after a report commissioned by their employer criticised the state of the pitch.
A team from FIFA-accredited sports turf consultant PSD Agronomy visited the site after a ‘double header’ – a Super League rugby match followed by a Premier League football match the next day. They advised that a five-day period between fixtures was recommended.
The two groundsmen say PSD Agronomy’s report confirmed what they had been asking for – that there should be enough time for the ground to recover between fixtures. The ground has also been used for polo and been covered by squash courts. They also claim their repeated pleas for more people to help repair divots had been ignored.
Other reasons given for the dismissal include having purchased too much grass treatment product (Harrison), allegedly working for Hull FC while supposed to be working for SMC (Cook) or allowing this to happen (Harrison), and for handing out free tickets to divotors who had been helping for years unpaid.
The case has just entered its early conciliation period before ACAS. The usual duration of this conciliation process is one month from the date of notification to ACAS of the potential claim, extendable by a further two weeks if both parties agree.
The ground is owned by Hull City Council and is managed by SMC on their behalf, but SMC is always owned by whoever owns the football club. This means that the football club’s owners control the ground even though there is another tenant, Hull FC, with an interest in it.
First published: www.solicistorsjournal.com, 24 May 2017, written by Jean-Yves Gilg (editor-in-chief at Solicitors Journal)