Jess Varnish tribunal: Ex-rider putting 'self interest' first, says British Cycling lawyer

Jess Varnish
Jess Varnish arrives at the employment tribunal on Wednesday, accompanied by boyfriend and ex-GB BMX champion Liam Phillips (second left)

Ex-rider Jess Varnish is putting "self-interest" before "public interest" by bringing a wrongful dismissal case against British Cycling and UK Sport, a lawyer for one of the bodies has said.

Varnish also accuses the organisations of sexual discrimination after she was dropped from a 2016 elite programme.

At a tribunal, she has had to try to persuade a judge she was the bodies' employee, so she can go on to sue them.

A verdict by the judge, expected on Monday, will now be given in January.

If Varnish wins it could have far-reaching consequences for how athletes are funded and their contracts, the tribunal heard.

It could also potentially lead to more cases of wrongful dismissal being brought.

It was a situation that British Cycling's barrister, Thomas Linden QC, described to the tribunal as "the skies falling in" for UK Sport.

Judge Ross' judgement was expected on Monday but after final submissions were given at the tribunal in Manchester on Friday, she said she would make her judgement within 28 days and would "strive to get it out by mid-January."

During the case, Varnish has had to persuade the judge she was effectively an employee of both British Cycling and the elite funding agency UK Sport.

This would allow her to then sue for wrongful dismissal, sex discrimination and detriment to a whistle-blower.

Linden told the tribunal on Friday that Varnish was telling "half-truths".

"This is a case of the highest public interest and extremely important to athletes, sport and the funding bodies, so it is vital a true and fair picture is presented.

"What we have witnessed here is the difference between self-interest and the public interest.

"For good or ill we have presented the facts - I am not sure I am able to say the same of the claimant."

On day one of the hearing in Manchester, Varnish said British Cycling coaches exerted "extreme control" over the riders.

Former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman agreed coaches had "complete" control in a written statement read out on day three after he pulled out of appearing in person on legal grounds.

However, Linden said Varnish had "gravely misrepresented" her coaches and said her lawyer, David Reade QC, had "scored a hat-trick of own goals" in raising examples of where British Cycling coaches had treated young athletes "like they were schoolchildren."

"They were schoolchildren," said Linden. "We all went to school, we wore school uniform, we were disciplined if we broke the rules and our results affected the school's funding.

"But nobody would say they worked for their school or, as they progressed through the system, for their university."

In his final submissions, Reade questioned Linden's comparison of Varnish's contract with school and university education.

"This is truly a contract that's not simply about education and training, it's about mutual benefit and achieving international medals and success," he said.

Linden told the tribunal the agreements funded athletes sign with their governing bodies "are highly restrictive but not contracts of employment" and claimed they are "tax-free, means-tested grants".

This was echoed by UK Sport's lawyer, Jane Mulcahy QC, who said it was "nonsense" that Varnish provided services in return for pay.

However, Reade argued that on the elite programme: "The objective is winning medals for Great Britain and the service being rendered is a common interest - to British Cycling and UK Sport the achievement of international success."

What is the background to the case?

Varnish began legal proceedings after claiming that she was dropped from the UK's elite cycling programme after failing to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics and told to "go and have a baby".

An investigation found that British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton had used sexist language after he had already resigned.

The Australian was cleared of eight other charges, including making the "baby" comment.

British Cycling maintains that Varnish was dropped on the basis of performances alone.

Should it be ruled that Varnish was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport, the parties will reconvene for a tribunal in 2019.

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