The University and College Union has stepped up its efforts to recoup the £580,000 it spent defending itself against allegations that it harassed a Jewish academic.
In the latest twist in the case of Ronnie Fraser, who took the UCU to an employment tribunal claiming that its policy on Palestine constituted religious harassment, lawyers for the union have argued that he should pay its legal costs.
It follows the tribunal’s complete rejection of Mr Fraser’s legal action, which claimed that the UCU was institutionally anti-Semitic owing to motions passed in favour of boycotting Israel.
Dismissing all 10 of the further education lecturer’s claims last May, the tribunal said that it viewed “almost the entire case as manifestly unmeritorious”, with various points rejected as “palpably groundless”, “obviously hopeless” and “devoid of any merit”.
The tribunal, led by employment judge Anthony Snelson, observed that the “sorry saga” had acquired a “gargantuan scale” – it required a 20-day hearing and 23 volumes of evidence – that was “manifestly excessive and disproportionate”.
With the tribunal adding that the UCU should not have been put to the “trouble and expense of defending” the case, the union is now suing Mr Fraser for costs – a seldom-used tactic for defendants in employment tribunals.
Last month, a new tribunal judge, Joanna Wade, was asked to consider whether the case was “misconceived or otherwise unreasonable”. A favourable decision would allow the UCU to be repaid its legal costs. That would also require the costs hearing to be heard promptly and on the basis of the original judgment.
But lawyers for Mr Fraser have claimed that Judge Snelson over-reached himself in his findings and that a lengthy re-examination of the evidence was now required.
Judge Wade will decide whether a fair costs hearing is possible and whether it falls within the rules of the employment tribunal.
Any successful claim would be a much-needed financial fillip for the UCU, which is having to cut £2 million from its annual budget by 2015 in the face of falling membership.
But if the UCU were to win its action, it is uncertain how Mr Fraser would pay the bill given his apparently modest income as a maths lecturer at Barnet College for many years.
That issue has also rekindled interest in how he funded his case, which was argued by top London solicitor Anthony Julius, who is best known as the divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales.
Both Mr Fraser and Mr Julius declined to comment on how the case was funded, but Mr Fraser’s political opponents have asked whether donations were received from wealthy pro-Israeli supporters or even the state of Israel itself.
According to Jonathan Rosenhead, chair of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, those supporters should now make themselves known and provide financial support to ensure that Mr Fraser is not declared bankrupt if the case goes against him.
“Ronnie Fraser’s irresponsible legal case against the UCU has cost his union, and therefore his fellow members, a small fortune,” Professor Rosenhead said.
“Those who bankrolled him are equally responsible for this debacle, and they should be held liable for the consequences to the defendant of the legal action they so rashly promoted.”
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