University Not Guilty of Race Discrimination

In a case which illustrates the magnitude of the task faced by Employment Tribunals in resolving the most factually complex cases, a black professor who claimed to be the victim of a 'conscious conspiracy emanating from the very top' at the university where he worked has failed in an epic legal battle to prove that he suffered race discrimination, harassment and victimisation (Fraser v University of Leicester and Others).

The case opened up a can of worms within the university's 'dysfunctional' economics department, which the professor had headed for three years. Amongst other things, he claimed that he had been repeatedly bullied by senior colleagues on account of his race and that his grievances against them had been seriously mishandled.

As well as very substantial legal costs bills, his numerous complaints had generated 12 lever arch files, filled with over 4,000 pages of documents, and a hearing spread over 19 days, with another five days set aside for deliberations. The ruling of the Employment Tribunal (ET) covered 112 pages and 630 paragraphs.

The ET was critical of some aspects of the professor's treatment amidst the melting pot of his troubled department, but ultimately ruled that none of it was racially motivated. There were no facts upon which the existence of a racist conspiracy could be inferred.

Challenging that ruling before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), the professor's lawyers argued that the ET had struggled with the sheer scale of the case and taken a 'fragmentary approach' to his various claims, failing to consider 'the big picture'. However, in dismissing his appeal, the EAT ruled that such criticisms were unfair.

The ET had put 'a great deal of time and care' into considering the professor's individual claims in detail. It had taken 'a holistic approach' in viewing his complaints as having arisen from the history of dysfunctional relationships and departmental disputes and in concluding that the university authorities had 'responded as they would have done in the case of any senior academic, regardless of race, in like circumstances'. In reaching a decision that was open to it on the evidence, the ET had 'kept sight of both the wood and the trees'.

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