Tribunal rejects unfair dismissal test case trio

January 14, 2010

Universities may have more scope to amend staff employment contracts after a key tribunal ruling.

Three lecturers at Edge Hill University who claimed that changes to their contracts amounted to unfair dismissal lost their cases at a recent Employment Appeal Tribunal. The three were test cases for a group of 68 claims backed by the University and College Union.

Edge Hill changed the trio's contracts as part of the implementation of a single nationwide pay scale agreed between campus unions and employers. It had not completed its negotiations on the local implementation of the Pay Framework Agreement by its intended start date in 2006, but went ahead anyway.

The agreement increased most lecturers' salaries, but some were considered to be overpaid and were asked to take on extra duties or have their wages frozen.

The 68 staff members filed tribunal claims on the basis that their terms and conditions had been fundamentally changed without their accord or a collective agreement.

They argued that where an employer unilaterally imposes radically different terms and conditions, this amounts to the removal of the old contract and therefore is a dismissal.

The tribunal agreed in principle, but said the changes "were not such as to amount to a wholesale departure from the claimants' previous contracts so as to amount to their cancellation or withdrawal".

It added: "There are benefits for each claimant in the new system and in so far as there were negative aspects they were not shown to be substantial."

Moreover, the UCU accepted the imposed changes "without significant alteration" two months later.

In its judgment last month, the tribunal said it had been "left with the distinct impression that what the claimants sought to do was have the evidence reconsidered ... with a view to us reaching a different view on what were, for the most part, wholly undisputed facts".

John McMullen, employment partner at law firm Short Richardson & Forth, said the case "illustrates the difficulty in trying to assert that staff have been dismissed while they are still in employment".

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