Sellafield Whistleblower Case: Claimant faces a £20,000 legal bill for necessary Freedom of Information and Subject Access Requests

Alison McDermott: Whistleblower

By Philip Whiteley and David Hencke

A law firm in the Sellafield whistleblowing case has put in a bid for £20,000 costs against the claimant Alison McDermott, in part to deal with Freedom of Information requests – even though it emerged at the Tribunal hearing that the firm’s client had failed substantially to provide relevant evidence.

The costs application by Pinsent Masons on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, if successful, could set a precedent that weakens a citizen’s right to request information. It would appear to undermine the will of Parliament, given that when the Freedom of Information Act was passed MPs specifically rejected the idea of levying a fee for FoI requests.

The other law firm in the case, DLA Piper, simultaneously put in a bid for £20,000 costs against Ms McDermott – the maximum allowed without being subject to a further hearing – listing other factors, principally changes the claimant made in the detail of her case.

Sellafield site Pic credit: gov.uk

At the three hearings in the case held so far there has been overwhelmingly strong evidence indicating that Ms McDermott’s FoI requests were both proportionate and necessary. She said: “The governing body [the NDA] in its ordinary disclosure, released one email. Then, when I put in direct subject access requests, many more emails proved that they had been asking questions about the termination of my contract. Then, at the hearing it emerged that Heather Roberts [former HR director at Sellafield] had withheld a key document that said that the NDA was very concerned about the timing of my termination and that conversations had been held. This information was never released.

“The Freedom of Information requests also revealed that contracts had been awarded for HR services, including EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] services, for the value of £17 million. It was only after that that they [Sellafield] switched from financial reasons [for dismissal] to one of performance.”

Ms McDermott, an independent EDI consultant hired by the nuclear plant Sellafield, had her contract terminated the first working day after making a report detailing systemic discrimination and bullying at the plant, a pattern confirmed by a BBC investigation which reported earlier this year.

At the tribunal hearing in June-July 2021 her barrister, James Arnold, pointed to directly relevant evidence only coming to light shortly before the hearing – after a period of more than two years since litigation began. He was not contradicted by either Respondent (see our coverage on 30 June). This hampered Mr Arnold’s ability to call witnesses, and cross-examine them. Ms McDermott was not successful in linking the detriment she experienced to the reports she made, although she is appealing the ruling.

Law Firm Pinsent Masons claimed FOI requests were ” vexatious”

The law firm, Pinsent Mason, claimed that the requests for Freedom of Information and Subject Access Requests, were part of vexatious, abusive, disruptive and unreasonable behaviour by Alison McDermott against both Sellafield and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

In a letter to the court the firm said she had “submitted four Data Subject Access Requests and six Freedom of Information Requests over the last three years, the majority of which were complex and involved significant work and additional legal time and cost by the Second Respondent [the NDA] to answer.”

It added it meant ”significant inhouse legal resource time and wider staff management time responding to data subject access requests and Freedom of Information Requests linked to the claim”.

Pinsent Mason said the NDA had spent £200,000 fighting the case and wanted £20,000 – the maximum it can claim at a tribunal – back.

Solicitors Regulation Authority takes no action against law firms

A critical response came from the Solicitors Regulation Authority who claimed that Ms McDermott had confused the difference between using all the information from Subject Access Requests with what was relevant to the case at the tribunal. The letter suggested that she should have highlighted more information from the requests if she thought the tribunal was not looking at the issue – citing the ruling from the judge.

The letter from the SRA making this point, dated 30 September 2021, cites from an earlier Tribunal ruling – following the strike-out hearing in July 2020. This was fully one year before the full hearing, where further directly relevant evidence came to light, as noted by Mr Arnold, including the correspondence in which the governing body admitted to nervousness about the timing of her dismissal.

DLA Piper wipes metadata and says it was a mistake

On another matter, as reported earlier, metadata was wiped from a piece of evidence in the case while in possession of DLA Piper, representing Sellafield, shielding information on authorship and time of creation of the document. The metadata was released to the claimant upon request.

The matter was referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which decided in September to take no action. It accepted that this was a genuine mistake by DLA Piper, although its own investigation was inconclusive.

Pinsent Masons, for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, did not respond to a request for a statement or interview.

A spokesman for DLA Piper said: ‘As a matter of course, DLA Piper does not comment on client matters. We refute allegations of wrongdoing on the firm’s part. The employment tribunal’s decision is open to the public and we would refer you to this for details of the case and the outcome.’ The Solicitors Regulation Authority did not respond to a request for an interview or statement.