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Law firm in e-mail 'slur' shock

September 7, 2001 

A law firm is being sued by a black secretary after she read an e-mail saying she should be replaced by a 'busty blonde'.

The 32-year-old woman, who has not been named, is seeking substantial damages for sex and race discrimination.

Hours after she handed in her resignation, she read an e-mail from lawyer Adam Dowdney to colleague Clive Hopewell saying: 'Can we go for a real fit busty blonde this time?

'She can't be any more trouble and at least it would provide some entertainment!'

The woman complained to the head of personnel at Charles Russell solicitors and launched legal proceedings.

The two senior lawyers have since written letters apologising for their behaviour.

Mr Hopewell, a partner in the London firm, dismissed the e-mail as a 'childish joke' that he hoped would not 'sour a good working relationship'.

He offered the woman the chance to 'chat about it over lunch'. Mr Dowdney called it a 'senseless and thoughtless joke'.

However, the secretary was so upset that her doctor signed her off work. The case is due to go before a tribunal next year, which can award unlimited

damages. A spokesman for Charles Russell, one of the City's oldest law firms, said: 'We are defending our position vigorously.'

Legal experts said the case highlighted the danger of flippant e-mails. Ronnie Fox, a solicitor with City firm Fox Williams, said: 'Even though they are seen as a relaxed and informal means of communication, what you send is recorded for ever.'

He added: 'The lesson is that you can't say things which discriminate against or offend people and you certainly must be careful not to write them.'

Barrister Adam Solomon, of London chambers Cloisters, said: 'One facet with e-mails is that they reproduce very easily and you have no control over where they go once you send them.'

Offensive e-mails have caused strife in other offices. In March, City banker Isabelle Terrillon won £70,000 after she claimed she was insulted by pornographic e-mails passed between male colleagues.

And in December last year, lawyer Bradley Chait was disciplined for circulating an explicit e-mail from his girlfriend which was read by more than 10million people worldwide.

by Wendy Vukosa, Copyright © Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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