Aktar Islam deplores 'tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain' after ex-employee's claim alleging unfair dismissal and discrimination is dismissed

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

A £34,900 claim brought forward by an ex-employee at Aktar Islam's Legna restaurant alleging unfair dismissal and discrimination because she was pregnant has been dismissed by a judge, ending three years of battling against what the chef called a 'blatantly malicious claim.'  

The chef said "justice has prevailed" after "a long three years," during which the chef owner of Michelin-starred Opheem in Birmingham was left to fund the case from his own pocket, costing him £51,000 and, he said, causing him "tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain."

What happened

Employed at the restaurant between October 2018 and January 2019 as an assistant manager, Sara Cowie, the partner of long-time friend of Aktar's, Ben Ternent, had been on a three-month long probation contract which she and Aktar had agreed upon, but was notified at the end of it that her position would not continue due to concerns surrounding her job performance.

At this point, she was offered three alternative roles within the company, all in the same salary band or above.

The decision to replace Sara was made on the 13th of December - nearly six weeks before Aktar was first notified of the pregnancy. As her poor performance was flagged to her, Sara is said to have expressed interest to other members of staff about other roles within the business.

Sara received additional support was allowed to complete the probation period until the end of January, when she notified Aktar that she was pregnant verbally after being merely one or two weeks late on her period, days before her end of probation meeting in January.

She then put this in writing three days later, a few days before her dismissal.

It was clear to Aktar from this point that Sara was laying the foundation for a claim against him and his team, something that the judge concurred with in court.

Sara declined to explore the other three roles offered by Aktar and his team - despite the opportunity to earn the same salary or up to 40 percent more - and instead contacted The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), appointed a solicitor, and drafted a statement within 48 hours of her end of probation meeting ending.
Sara’s initial claim was for £34,900 for unfair dismissal and discrimination, but messages seen in court show that she was aware of her role being in jeopardy before she fell pregnant, and that she knew replacements for her role were being sought prior to the end of her probation period.

'I was questioning the entire process and how it seems that it’s designed to extort employers'

Aktar dissolved Legna in 2019 when the building was condemned due to cladding issues, meaning he had to fund his own defense, even though, as he said, with the backing of his legal advisors, "the evidence was overwhelmingly clear that this was a malicious claim."

"This really caused great strain on me mentally and I was questioning the entire process and how it seems that it’s designed to extort employers. I did no wrong, the business was dissolved yet I was allowed to be bought in personally.  

"I worry for those individuals who may have found themselves in a similar position without the ability to defend themselves, what if the pandemic killed my businesses would I have to go into debt to continue to defend myself?”

The chef added that he has spent £51,000 and three years of his life "defending against this blatantly malicious claim," funds which could have gone towards saving jobs in the context of the pandemic. 

"This has caused tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain on me as I've had to fund this personally as Legna closed in 2019. These funds would have been of great help considering what the business has had to endure over the last 18 months. This is the equivalent of one year of rent for one of the restaurants or a year's salaries for two trainee chefs.”
“Instead of having these funds available to support and safeguard the jobs of nearly 100 individuals or to invest in a young trainees future I have had to use these funds to defend against a selfish and dishonest couples’ greed and desire to use the ACAS system - one that’s there to help and support employees who have been wronged by their employers - to attempt to extort funds from me."

The chef said that the strain of the situation "has had a detrimental effect on the mental health of both myself and my management team, to be accused of something as disgusting as discrimination against a pregnant individual is hurtful as I’m a father and we have many parents within our group and have also supported several individuals through maternity and paternity.

"Also, with the worry of having to divert much needed resources to defend against this was difficult as both of my restaurants have been closed for most part of the last 18 months.”
“Situations like this can unconsciously create biases in an employer’s mind and highlights the unfortunate reality whereby people like Sara can take advantage of the system for financial gain.

"The lack of support and awareness puts employers and businesses in difficult situations, in some cases crippling them and forcing them into liquidation. Thankfully, we continue to support diversity within our team with over 50 percent of our management team being women, some of whom have been supported by the company through maternity and provided flexibility to work around their childcare needs.”

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 30th September 2021

Aktar Islam deplores 'tremendous financial, mental, and emotional strain' after ex-employee's claim alleging unfair dismissal and discrimination is dismissed