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Exclusive: Gowling WLG partner’s ‘disability quip’ nearly collapses misconduct investigation

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And nobody laughed

Sandwell Council House in Oldbury, West Midlands

A Gowling WLG-led probe into the alleged misconduct of a senior council official was thrown into chaos after one of its partners made a “disability quip” during a meeting.

In 2015, a probe was launched into the actions of Sandwell councillor Mahboob Hussain. The now ex-deputy leader was accused, among other things, of procuring the sale of council land to family friends below market value, and having parking ticket fines issued to family members revoked.

Keen to get to the bottom of the allegations, the West Midlands-based council instructed international law firm Wragge & Co (now Gowling WLG) to carry out an independent investigation into Hussain’s purported misconduct.

Now, thanks to a recently published High Court judgment, Legal Cheek can reveal that the lengthy investigation was thrown into turmoil after Gowling lawyer Mark Greenburgh made “personal and derogatory observations” about Hussain’s daughter and her children.

According to the judgment, Greenburgh — who was tasked with overseeing the investigation — met with senior Sandwell council officials, including chief executive Jan Britton, in October 2015. It continues:

At the meeting Mr Greenburgh made what was subsequently described by Mr Britton as ‘…a passing quip about the disabilities of Cllr Hussain’s daughter and her children being due to inbreeding’.

When Legal Cheek got in touch with Gowling WLG regarding this, the firm declined to comment. Greenburgh also did not respond when we contacted him.

Despite the employment specialist’s comments creating “serious disquiet”, it was ultimately decided by council officials that Greenburgh, a partner in Gowling’s London office, should continue with the investigation due to it now being in its advanced stages. However, taking precautions, the ruling notes:

[A]ll the evidence and the resultant report should then be submitted to leading counsel for independent and objective advice on the merits of the investigation, the implication of the solicitor’s [Greenburgh] derogatory comments, as to whether the solicitors report should be published, and as to appropriate next steps.

The judgment containing Greenburgh’s comments relates to a judicial review challenge brought by Hussain. He had argued that the council’s decision to “plough on” with the report, despite Greenburgh’s remarks, amounted to “bias”, and placing it in the public domain breached his human rights.

However, rejecting Hussain’s claims, Mr Justice Green ruled that the council had handled the Greenburgh situation appropriately and that there was a “pressing public interest” in the misconduct allegations.

According to a local media report, Hussain — who police found had no criminal case to answer in relation to the allegations — will face a council standards committee in the coming weeks.

Read the judgment in full below:

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