Warwick embroiled in contracts rumpus

January 16, 1998

LECTURERS on fixed-term contracts of a year or more, which include waivers of employment rights, still cannot claim compensation if the contract is renewed, a recent tribunal has ruled.

The case has caused ructions in union circles because Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, sat on the Employment Appeals Tribunal that made the ruling.

Ms Warwick took up the seat as general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, a job she left more than five years ago.

She says she asked for government advice when she joined the CVCP, in June 1995, and was told it would be appropriate for her to continue on the tribunal. No one has since raised any concerns with her about the matter.

She said she could not recall the case in question but was sure she would have mentioned it in the tribunal had she been aware of a conflict of interest.

Dr Hashmukhray Bhatt, an expert on vitamin B12 disorders, appealed to the tribunal after bringing a complaint of unfair dismissal against Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School.

He was employed by the medical school as a research fellow under a fixed-term contract for three years from June 1985 and signed a clause waiving his right to a redundancy payment or to claim unfair dismissal if his contract was not renewed.

His contract was renewed, on the same terms, a number of times for different periods, ending with a three-month extension from October 1995 to January 1996.

When this ended without being renewed, he claimed unfair dismissal. He argued that under his most recent contract he had been employed for less than a year so the waiver clause did not hold.

In a reserved decision given in September, the Employment Appeals Tribunal decided the final three-month extension was part of his original three-year contract.

The case has wide-ranging implications for universities, where staff are increasingly employed on fixed-term contracts with waivers. A spokesman for the AUT, which is campaigning against waiver clauses, said: "This case will take things a good deal further backwards."

Michael Rubenstein, editor of Industrial Relations Law reports, warned that the shorter the term needed for a waiver clause to be legally valid, the shorter the term of contracts likely to be offered to employees. He described fixed-term contract waiver clauses as "the employment law equivalent of tax avoidance: within the letter of the law but contrary to its spirit".

The government is committed to introducing legislation to end the use of waiver clauses but it will take time to go through Parliament.

Leeds University has already agreed to scrap waiver clauses after a protest by contract staff.

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