As practice lead of Thompsons' Trade Union Law Group (TULG), Iain Birrell specialises in all areas of trade union law, such as industrial action, recognition, rule book issues, and elections. His specialisms encompass individual employment law, collective employment law, trade union constitutions, judicial reviews, CAC work, certification officer work, injunctions, and head office staffing matters.

In a previous role as regional employment rights manager, Iain was involved in the successful conclusion of mass equal pay-related sex discrimination cases in the North East, even obtaining a costs award against the other side's representative. Iain was appointed as a regional head of employment in 2007, during which time the Legal 500 called him "the key figure" in the Newcastle office, while Chambers said he was "the practice's leading light in the North East and sources highlight his specialism in trade union discrimination and large-scale collective claims".  

In 2014, he became the national case management coordinator for the firm’s specialist Trade Union Law Group, which advises trade unions at head office level in connection with complex issues and handles important or sensitive disputes. Iain specialises in constitutional issues, as well as policy and public affairs work, and in 2014, gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Public Bill Committee on the effects of the proposed legislation relating to zero hours contracts, whistleblowing, and financial penalties for unpaid employment tribunal awards. 

He has also been a guest commentator for legal online information organisation Lexis Nexis, a division of the international publishing house Reed Elsevier.

After qualifying at a Yorkshire law firm, he spent some time in London providing legal input to the Channel Tunnel high speed rail link project.

Prior to joining Thompsons Solicitors in 2001, Iain had been a partner at the Yorkshire firm where he had specialised in commercial litigation and employment law.

Iain gives talks and lectures on employment law to clients both at events organised by Thompsons Solicitors and external organisations including the Institute of Employment Rights. Iain has been a guest author for LexisNexis, ACAS, LELR and USI, and has also lectured or run education events for most major trade unions, IER, and Legal Island, among others. 

At his previous firm, Iain had “batted for the other side” in employment law cases, as he puts it, but now enjoys being “on the side of the angels” with Thompsons Solicitors. He is proud of making a difference on behalf of both individual union members and their unions. His previous legal experience inevitably gives him a valuable insight into arguments employers will make before they make them.

Away from work, Iain enjoys road cycling and covers some 3,500 miles a year with a cycling club.


Iain's case experience

  • Secured compensation totalling £850,000 in the first case in the UK using a law prohibiting the use of inducements to undermine union-related activity including collective bargaining (Davies and 344 others v ASDA, 2006)
  • Secured £650,000 for disabled trade union members who lost their jobs when the government closed down the Remploy factories (Abbott & 1600 others v Remploy, 2015)
  • Recovered £497,000 and a six-figure costs aware in the largest sex discrimination award of 2006 (Scanlon v Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, 2010)
  • Secured £133,000 in a sex discrimination claim in which a tribunal found a 'laddish culture' at the council which had failed to operate its equal opportunities policy (Miller v Durham County Council, 2003)
  • Recovered £106,000 for a senior lecturer whose employer failed to reinstate him following his dismissal after declining to get a PhD his job didn’t require (Duxbury v University of Huddersfield, 2020)
  • Established that branch officers were not employees of the union for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010(Unite the Union v Nailard, 2018)
  • Succeeded in a High Court judicial review which held that the Close Proximity Crewing shift system operated by the defendant was unlawful as it was in breach of regulations 6 and 10 of the Working Time Regulations 1998 (FBU v South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority, 2018)
  • Successfully challenged the 2016 changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (PCS and others v Minister for the Cabinet Office, 2017)
  • Successfully defended ASLEF against an injunction application using novel arguments based upon EU law (Govia Thameslink Railway Ltd v ASLEF, 2017)
  • Secured a decision restricting the manner in which an employer can be said to have de-recognised an incumbent trade union (GMB v Kuehne & Nagel, 2014)
  • Acted in a leading case about whether an employment tribunal lay member’s background with a different trade union gave rise to apparent bias (Hamilton v GMB (Northern Region), 2007) 
  • Acted in a noteworthy constructive dismissal case in circumstances where the employee resigned in response to how her grievance was handled (Brown v GMB, 2007)
  • Acted in a leading case on the use of anonymous witness evidence in workplace disciplinary investigations (Ramsay v Walkers Snack Foods Ltd, 2004)
  • Acted in a leading case on what constitutes a ‘local agreement’ for the purposes of the Green Book (Graham & ors v South Tyneside Borough Council, 2004)


Professional membership

Iain has been a member of the Law Society of England and Wales' employment law committee since 2008, which identifies areas of employment law and procedure that require reform or review and formulates recommendations for consideration by government and non-government bodies.

Since 2017 Iain has been an elected member of the Industrial Law Society’s Executive Committee.