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Wednesday, 29 November, 2000, 04:18 GMT
Law Society accused of discrimination
Kamlesh Bahl
Kamlesh Bahl was in line to head the Law Society
By the BBC's home affairs correspondent Jon Silverman

Over the past decade a number of high profile employment tribunal hearings have exposed both racism and sexism within the police.

But the Kamlesh Bahl case is the first to illuminate practices at the Law Society, the body that represents some 80,000 solicitors in England and Wales.

It began in earnest on Tuesday at the Watford employment tribunal and it threatens to wash a mound of dirty linen in a highly public forum.

Law Society coat of arms
The Law Society denies sex and race discrimination
Ms Bahl was vice-president of the Law Society until March 2000.

She was in line to become the first Asian and first woman to head the society but she resigned shortly after an inquiry headed by a former law lord, Lord Griffiths, found that she had bullied and harassed five staff members.

The Griffiths report said her behaviour had "at times been demeaning and humiliating and at other times, offensively aggressive".

Kamlesh Bahl is not challenging the Griffiths findings but she denies that her behaviour amounted to bullying.

The fact that she previously chaired the Equal Opportunities Commission gives a case hardly short of public interest yet another frisson.

Both sides have been circumspect in discussing the arguments they will deploy.

Natural justice

But Ms Bahl's claim centres on the speed with which the Law Society dealt with complaints against her - suspending her days after the publication of the Griffiths report.

This, she says, breached natural justice and her right to a fair hearing at which she could rebut the allegations.

Ms Bahl's supporters include the Society of Black Lawyers, which claims the case has highlighted institutional racism within the legal profession.

She had hoped to call as witnesses a number of people who also allege race and sex discrimination in the legal world.

But the tribunal chairman has ruled out most of their statements on the grounds that this would extend the ambit of the inquiry too widely.

When outsiders ruffle feathers and stumble they are kicked when they are down

Robin Allen, QC, for Kamlesh Bahl
When the opening statements were made for the main parties, the emotiveness of this case quickly became evident.

Robin Allen, QC, for Kamlesh Bahl, said that as one of the best-known Asian women in the country, she had been an outsider when she arrived at the Law Society.

"When outsiders ruffle feathers and stumble they are kicked when they are down," he said.

"That is what happened to her. "

Counsel for the Law Society, Paul Goulding, QC, said that Ms Bahl was a bully who had misused the power of her office and abused the trust of solicitors.

He said: " She had been warned repeatedly that her conduct was unacceptable but she was impervious to criticism and unable to modify her behaviour. "

The hearing is expected to last until Christmas.

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