Two Ghanaian lawyers undergoing a one-year pupilage at an Accra-based private law firm, Legal Ink Lawyers & Notaries, have been suspended after they became pregnant.
The two lawyers, who are both expecting their first children, had done two and three months each of the 12-month pupillage. However, they were handed letters on January 6, 2020, to go home and return only after the delivery of their babies.
This was despite the fact that the two, after consulting their medical doctors, had told management of the firm they were able and prepared to stay on and work.
The two are both married and said they had not been informed about the possibility of being asked to suspend their pupilage if they got pregnant.
After passing the final examination at the Ghana School of Law, lawyers are expected to undergo an internship programme with a law firm before they are called to the bar. This is to offer them an opportunity to understudy the legal practice in a law firm or court.
After their call to the bar, they are expected to again work with a law firm for a year before they are given the solicitor’s license. But these two women will have their licenses delayed further because they will be idle until after the delivery of their babies.
The law firm, Legal Ink Lawyers & Notaries has confirmed to theghanareport.com that even though its decision on the two lawyers had something to do with health concerns relating to pregnancy, it was not based on any medical report on the women’s ability to continue working in the firm.
The two women were among six lawyers undergoing their pupilage at Legal Ink Lawyers & Notaries, a law firm based at Labone in Accra.
On January 2, 2020, they were summoned to a meeting at the conference room to meet the Executive Chairman of the firm, Daniyal Abdul-Karim, and the Deputy Managing Counsel (in charge of human resource), Theodocia Naana Bennieh Quartey.
They said they were shocked when the Executive Chairman congratulated them on their pregnancies because it appeared undetectable as it was in the early stages.
Only one of them said she had confided in Ms Quartey. The other said Ms Quartey once remarked about pregnancy when she (the pupil) wasn’t well and informed her, but she neither confirmed nor denied the fact that she was pregnant.
“I was shocked that it had got to him [the chairman] so I wasn’t smiling when he said ‘congratulations’. But Naana said, ‘If someone says congratulations, you smile’, so I smiled,” one of them said in an interview with theghanareport.com.
At the said meeting, the two management members of the firm proposed to the young lawyers to defer their pupilage until after delivery. They were expected to respond to the proposal by the end of the following day, January 3, 2020.
When they asked whether their responses should be verbal (like the discussion) or written, the management members said an email on the discussion would be sent to them, and they were expected to respond to the email in writing.
Before the end of that day, Ms Quartey sent the two an email which said:
“As discussed this morning on the above subject, Management will appreciate your response to the proposal by close of business tomorrow 3rd January 2020.”
On January 3, 2020, after consulting their medical doctors, the two lawyers sent their separate responses, but with the same wording, first thanking management of the firm for taking an interest in their health.
“However, upon discussion with my healthcare provider, I am capable and fit to carry on my duties as a pupil in spite of my current pregnancy,” the response read in part.
“If my healthcare provider thinks that I am unable to carry on in my capacity as a pupil, I will, with due notice, inform you of my decision to defer my pupillage,” the email said.
The two lawyers were of the view that if they were not able to complete their pupilage before their deliveries were due, they would return to do a couple of the remaining months after delivery and get their solicitor’s licenses from the General Legal Council.
If, on the other hand, they were denied the opportunity to continue their pupilage because of their pregnancies, it would take them almost two years to get their license.
The period between now and their due delivery date, they say, will be wasted and they will have about 10 more months to complete their pupilage after delivery.
On January 6, 2020, the two women were called by the Deputy Managing Counsel and handed letters asking them to suspend their pupilage, with effect from January 10, 2020, until after their delivery.
A copy of the letter, which this reporter obtained from the management of the Legal Ink Lawyers & Notaries, referred to the reasons given for the firm’s decision:
“We first mentioned your health and welfare as well as that of the baby and the need to avoid stress which comes with the duties of a pupil to appear for training at the Firm daily or regularly and our inability to insist on or expect your attendance on regular basis or demand from you, an output ordinarily expected of pupils.
“The second reason we gave for the decision suspending your pupilage programme, which also flows from the above, is the Firm’s inability to make a full and honest declaration to the General Legal Council that you were able to undertake the 12-month mandatory pupilage programme. You would notice that already you have been absent from work on many occasions on the grounds relating to ill-health due to the pregnancy…”
The law firm was of the view that since the two would surely deliver before the twelfth month of their pupilage, there was no sense in keeping them.
This position, according to the two women, has been contradicted by the firm’s decision that the number of months they had already served before their suspension, would be counted if they return after the delivery.
They said If they were allowed to continue with their pupilage until their deliveries were due, those months would still count and the fact that they would deliver before the twelfth month does not become a good reason to ask them to go home once they got pregnant.
Ms Quartey, a mother of four, was pregnant in her final year in the Ghana School of Law. She told this reporter in an interview that she delivered 10 days before her final examination, but she passed. She delivered the rest of her children while practising as a lawyer.
When this reporter asked whether it would have been fair for anybody to force her to suspend her course work because of the rigour and stress associated with the law school, she said being a student was not the same as being a pupil.
Management of the firm was of the view that it was different with a pupil because the firm was required to attest to the General Legal Council at the end of the pupilage and the pupil must satisfy the requirements of the pupilage.
This position was shared by the Executive Chairman of the firm, Daniyal Abdul-Karim and the Managing Counsel, Summani M. Zachary. The two, together with Ms. Quartey, answered questions when this reporter went to interview them.
“Perhaps, pupils who want to do their pupilage immediately they come out of law school probably will plan their lives well; …will probably plan and say that ‘if I want to go through training that will make me be going to court, I don’t want to be carrying pregnancy and going to court and shuttling because I want to finish this pupilage within this period’…,” Summani M. Zachary said.
“The hustle associated with going to court, with the legal practice, we don’t think it is in your interest to be saddled with court, the training [so] suspend it, finish [deliver], come back and continue,” he added.
MANASSEH AZURE AWUNI: So a heavily pregnant woman can go through the law school and finish. A heavily pregnant woman can go to court and practise as a lawyer. But you don’t think it is ideal for someone who is undergoing pupilage to get pregnant?
SUMMANI M. ZACHARI: Because the person [pupil] is required by statute to be trained. The persons you are talking to me about — the pregnant woman who is a student –no statute says that a pregnant woman must be a student. There’s no law that says that a pregnant lawyer must go to court. It is her choice to decide that ‘I want to go to court or I don’t want to go to court because I’m pregnant.”
MANASSEH AZURE AWUNI: There’s no law that says a pregnant woman cannot undergo pupilage.
SUMMANI ZACHARY: So it is the choice of the law firm, which is a private entity to decide that if I have a duty to attest to a regulator that this person has undergone training then I have to look at the person holistically to say that yes, this person will be able to do the training within the required period or the person will not be able to do the training.
False claims and discrimination
The two women say they have been discriminated against because one of their colleagues in the firm had been given a special arrangement that allowed him to work from Monday to Wednesday as a pupil because he also worked in one of the state security agencies. They are wondering why the firm could have such a special arrangement with their male counterpart and not be able to accommodate them because of their pregnancy.
When this claim of the lawyers was put to the management of the firm, they declined to comment.
In the letter to one of the two suspended female lawyers, the firm said she had been absent from work on “many occasions”, a claim she vehemently denies.
According to her, she had been absent from work only once. On that occasion, she said she had complained of ill-health and gone to the hospital.
The following day, she wanted to go to work but the Deputy Managing Counsel told her to rest and fully recover. Beyond that, she insists, she did not fail to go to work on any other day.
However, the Firm insists that was inaccurate and that it was more than once, about four days.
When this reporter asked for the specific dates she was absent, the Executive Chairman declined the request. In the earlier interview with the management team however, they mentioned December 27th.
The second woman also said she had been given an “excuse duty” from the hospital for seven working days, but she felt better and reported to work after the fifth day.
According to the two, the Firm discriminated against them because of their pregnancies and not because of claims of absenteeism.
They referred to a situation involving their colleague pupil who had an eye problem and was absent from work for two weeks.
This pupil, they said, even suggested to management that she wanted to defer her pupilage because of her condition, but she was encouraged to stay on.
Management of the firm said it was unfair to compare the two because the one who had an eye problem had an allergy and that could not be compared with ill-health relating to pregnancy.
“We have been in this office with female lawyers who have been pregnant several times and we know how it is. It will come up. They will be going to the hospital. You can’t stop somebody who is pregnant or who is sick, from going to the hospital,” Summani M. Zachary said.
MANASSEH AZURE AWUNI: I went through your office handbook and when it came to health issues, you emphasised a lot, every point, about the fact that in taking decisions, you have to rely on certified reports from a medical officer. In this case, did you rely on any such medical report before making the decision?
SUMMANI M. ZACHARY: The handbook is primarily for employees, people who have been engaged as lawyers to work for the firm, and not pupils who are under training. It is not applicable to them.
MANASSEH AZURE AWUNI: So if you have the handbook applicable to only your employees if a pupil comes and they break the rules and regulations contained in your handbook, do you sanction them or you tell them, “This does not apply to you”?
DANIYAL ABDUL-KARIM: Because they are under training and because the expectation is that after completing this training programme, we might retain them, we will expect them to obey the rules [contained in the handbook] as part of the training being given to them…”
Management of the firm said one of the reasons for asking pupils to suspend their one-year engagement was that their pregnancy and related health issues had the tendency to disrupt the smooth flow of work they were assigned to and that came at a cost to the firm.
Interestingly, substantive lawyers of the firm who become pregnant are not required to suspend their engagement with the firm until after delivery. They handle bigger and more sensitive responsibilities than the pupils.
The two women say they feel violated because the pregnancy was supposed to be a private issue but their suspension had resulted in the spreading of the news in the legal fraternity.
Discrimination Against Pregnant Women in Ghana
This is not the first time the issues of alleged discrimination against pregnant women has come up even though the constitution makes special mention of mothers and expectant mothers.
Article 27(1) of the 1992 Constitution which states that ” Special care shall be accorded to mothers during a reasonable period before and after child-birth; and during those periods, working mothers shall be accorded paid leave.”
In 2017, for instance, this reporter reported on a policy that forced pregnant women in nursing training colleges to suspend their education until after delivery.
The report, which was aired on Joy FM, highlighted the frustration of Cecilia Awuni, a married student of the Gushiegu Nursing and Midwifery Training School, who was asked to leave the examination hall when she had already written three out of the six papers of her final examination.
Even though, the Nursing and Midwifery Council initially justified the action of the principal, who was a woman, the public outraged caused the Council to backtrack.
The Ministry of Health, within a week after the story, released a press statement announcing the cancellation of the policy. A nursing student who becomes pregnant during her training is, therefore, no longer driven out of school.
The Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) also had in Regulation 33(6) of its Condition of Service stating that: “A female employee shall not be dismissed on the ground that she is pregnant, provided she had served for three years.”
This regulation was used to dismiss women who became pregnant in their first three years of employment in the fire service.
In 2017, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) went to court to challenge that regulation when two women were dismissed for getting pregnant when they had not served for three years.
In 2018, the human rights division of an Accra High Court presided by the late Justice Anthony K. Yeboah, a Court of Appeal judge, declared that “Regulation 33(6) of the Conditions of Service of the GNFS is discriminatory in effect, unjustifiable, illegitimate and illegal.”
The court ordered Fire Service to reinstate the women and pay them “all arrears of their salaries and benefits that accrued to them during the period of dismissal.” The court also ordered the GNFS to compensate the two women with 50,000 cedis each “for the trauma and inevitable inconvenience of the wrongful dismissal.”
We’re not hostile to women
Daniyal Abdul-Karim said his firm was not anti-women. He said the firm always had more women than men. Out of the six pupils his firm took, four of them were women.
He said the firm had even built a nursery to accommodate children of workers who delivered. The facility, he said, would be made available to the two pupils if they deliver and want to return to continue with their pupilage.