College managers are to fund an employment tribunal that could test the legitimacy of further education college staff contracts across the country.
The case, Ms S. Ralton and others vs Havering College, will be heard in July, five years after it was brought by the Lecturers' Employment Advice and Action Fellowship. It had been delayed pending clarifications on points of law.
The Association of Colleges is funding the case because it is of "national significance". It has warned members that the implications of the employment tribunal decision could be far-reaching, although it has advised them against taking immediate action.
The case argues that lecturers' terms and conditions should not have been changed following transfer of colleges from local authority control to college governing bodies in 1993.
After the transfer, colleges replaced the old "Silver Book" contracts with contracts demanding longer hours. This led to a seven-year dispute with lecturers' union Natfhe that ended this month when both sides agreed to settle hours locally and to try to improve other aspects of pay and conditions. But LEAF has persisted with a challenge to contracts imposed on lecturers at Havering College, Essex.
The tribunal is expected to resolve five key elements of law:
* The applicants are seeking damages for breach of contract or repayment of deductions unlawfully made from their pay under what was section 11 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 (if they win on this point, the government could end up having to pay millions of pounds in compensation)
* Whether the college is "an emanation of the state" for the purposes of European Union law. (This would mean colleges would automatically have to obey EUdirectives, whether or not they had passed through UK law)
* Whether incorporation amounted to a transfer under the Acquired Rights Directive
* Whether employees were unfairly compelled to agree to vary their terms and conditions after incorporation
* Whether changes of terms and conditions in the lecturing contract related to the transfer.
LEAF argues that the previous Conservative government deliberately engineered removal of lecturers from their lawful contracts in contravention of European law on acquired rights.
The Court of Appeal and European Court of Justice recently ruled that it was not legal for employers who took over a business to impose new contracts unless there was a "significant other factor".