After a tortuous legal process, the former pier engineers Peter Wheeler and Daisy Hill have succeeded in legal claims for constructive dismissal brought against Lions Hastings Pier Limited, the company which Sheikh Abid Gulzar formed to take over operation of Hastings Pier in 2018.  Last week an employment judge sitting at Ashford, Judge Corrigan, ordered the company to pay them together a total of around £38,000 in respect of their dismissal claims. Ms Hill was separately awarded £30,000 for sexual harassment and discrimination during her brief period of employment. There is likely to be a hefty award of legal costs on top of these sums, which remains to be assessed.

Mr Wheeler had been principal project engineer in the restoration of the pier funded by the National Lottery from 2013 onwards. Ms Hill joined him as pier maintenance engineer from 2016. Both were employed by the Hastings Pier Charity. When the Charity became insolvent, and administrators sold the pier to Mr Gulzar, his Lions company automatically became the engineers’ employer under TUPE (Transfer of Undertaking – Protection of Employment) regulations. 

CREDIT: Bob Beaney

It was not a happy experience. Mr Gulzar refused funds for safety inspections or for new materials, and rejected a series of professional recommendations for action, which rendered performance of the engineers’ respective duties impossible. He purported to bring disciplinary proceedings against Mr Wheeler without any prior discussion. He also belittled Ms Hill’s professional competence, adding in a series of sexist remarks and discriminatory conduct, commissioning secret photographic pursuit of her at her work and at one point offering her £5 to dress up as Marilyn Monroe to pose in a white gusty dress.

Tardy process

The case took the best part of three years to reach the employment tribunal hearing. The tardy process of tribunal administration and a long backlog of hearings during the era of Covid lockdowns and restrictions will have been the chief cause. Whether or not the claimants and their lawyers may have been tardy in assembling their case, it’s likely on past form that Mr Gulzar, who is sole director of the Lions company, prevaricated in his responses. He has a long history of defeats and personal humiliations in legal disputes over tax liabilities, unpaid bills and other employment issues. It was perhaps no surprise, then, that in this case he failed to show up at the tribunal hearing or appoint lawyers to represent the Lions company, leaving the engineers’ solicitor Michael Foster, former Hastings & Rye MP, to present their respective claims unopposed.

The awards determined by Judge Corrigan vindicate, from a legal point of view, the conduct and reputation of both Mr Wheeler and Ms Hill. However, that outcome will not necessarily lead to any payout to them, nor does it bring any clarity to wider questions that remain concerning the future of the pier.

The Lions company accounts, last filed in December 2021 for the year up to March 2021, show a negative balance of nearly £140,000. This may be insufficient evidence in itself to prove that the company is already insolvent, but Mr Gulzar has past form in presiding over insolvent companies in the hotel trade, and he may well have decided that this one can follow suit. The company does not own the pier itself – that remains in his own sole personal ownership as a result of the unconditional sale to him by the Charity administrators in June 2018. 

Is it conceivable that at some point a determined adversary might attempt to pin personal liability on Mr Gulzar
in respect of his conduct as company director? Even if that happened, it seems unlikely that he will be forced to dispose of the pier any time soon. In the meantime the sea continues to wash twice daily against the understructure, untrammelled by any robust maintenance programme provided by those above.

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