Wrongful dismissal in the United Kingdom

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In United Kingdom law, the concept of wrongful dismissal refers exclusively to dismissal contrary to the contract of employment, which effectively means premature termination, either due to insufficient notice or lack of grounds. Although wrongful dismissal is usually associated with lack of notice sometimes it can also be caused by arbitrary dismissal where no notice was required but certain grounds were specified in the contract as being the only ones available but none existed.

Definitions[edit]

Wrongful dismissal does not terminate the contract - it is a repudiatory breach, i.e. one entitling the employee to consider himself no longer bound on the basis of the employer no longer considering itself bound. The employer's repudiatory breach (wrongful dismissal) forces the employee to accept it as he is prevented from earning from the employer and required to mitigate by working for someone else, thus terminating the contract.[1] This does not follow contract law and is an invention by judges, disliked by others, designed to reflect the reality of employment, using the dual fictions that because the right to wages depends on the obligation to work, there is no right to wages if the employer tells the employee not to work[2] (forgetting that the employer is not able to terminate the obligation to work other than in accordance with the contract) and that the employee has accepted the repudiation by not working for the employer even though he is willing and able. Otherwise the employee would be entitled to stay at home at the employer's request yet sue for unpaid wages as a debt.

An employer is only entitled to dismiss an employee without notice:

  • in the first month,
  • if the contract says so, or
  • if the employee conducts himself so as to undermine the trust and confidence such that the employer should no longer be required to retain the employee in his employment.

The last example, trust and confidence, is commonly known as "gross misconduct", but employment law only distinguishes between misconduct that justifies dismissal and misconduct that does not. Conduct entitling the employer to terminate the contract is conduct indicating the employee no longer considers himself bound by it and so is technically accepting the termination caused by the employee. Gross misconduct is really just a vague list of offences that could most easily justify summary dismissal for a first offence.

An employee could seriously annoy an employer without indicating that he no longer intends to be bound by the contract.[citation needed]

Dismissal for a reason contrary to statute or contrary to a statutory procedure is described as "unfair dismissal" but not all wrongful dismissals are unfair dismissals, and dismissal by forcing somebody to resign through serious breach of contract is known as constructive dismissal and constructive dismissal is usually a wrongful dismissal due to lack of notice.

Employer loses restrictive covenants[edit]

If an employer dismisses an employee without legally required notice then the employee is usually not bound by restrictive covenants[3] (increasingly though courts treat pay in lieu of notice as curing lack of notice[4]). This means the employer of a senior employee privy to company secrets should be careful not to unjustifiably summarily dismiss him, or put him on garden leave or pay him in lieu of notice without a contractual provision allowing it, or even miscalculate his notice period making it a day short.

Sometimes an employer can restore such covenants in a compromise agreement by paying a nominal sum of, say, £500 for them. The employer cannot circumvent the risk of a summary dismissal turning out to have been unlawful by giving notice, as that would imply the employee's breach of contract was insufficient to justify summary dismissal.

Notice period[edit]

The notice period will usually be in the written agreement, otherwise there are statutory minimums but a court can imply a reasonable period and often will if it thinks the employee has been treated shabbily - for example, one week can turn into a month, and one month can turn into three months. The statutory minima are one week for one month to two years' service then one extra week per year of service from two to twelve years up to a maximum of 12 weeks.[5] Common law notice, used by courts where the contract is silent, depends on the work, seniority, length of service and payment intervals, but not on what the employer can afford;[6] senior specialists can be given six or even up to twelve months.

Right to work[edit]

The employee is always entitled to be paid during his employment and the required notice period. They are often also entitled to work. Requiring the employee to spend the time in leisure (IE at home, on vacation, etc.) in order to "get them out of the way" can be considered illegal, even though it may be usually considered a benefit to the employee.

If an employer wants an exiting employee out of the way and does not have the right to put him on garden leave or pay him in lieu of notice then the only options are to encourage use of holiday and offer a compromise agreement to waive his right to sue in return for the intentional breach of contract. Sometimes the breach turns the termination payment into compensation rather than wages, making it tax-free, so the employee may be only too happy to go along with the ruse.

Remedies[edit]

In a tribunal the remedy would be compensation. In court the remedy would be damages but rarely an injunction. An injunction could be awarded to enforce a contractual disciplinary procedure,[7] but because compensation is usually an adequate remedy for premature termination an injunction is generally not available to keep a job going,[8] even in a redundancy situation where the selection process has been circumvented.

The employee can only apply to the tribunal during the three months following termination, and once the employers internal complaints procedure has been exhausted.

Compensation[edit]

Losses[edit]

For the notice period the employer must pay wages (including any anticipated pay rise[9]) and benefits[10] except holiday.

For wrongful dismissal, it is only possible to claim for lost earnings[11] and damage to reputation,[12] not for the manner of dismissal.[13]

Benefits[edit]

Benefits include:

  • pension,
  • commission accrued and owed,[14]
  • bonus,
  • overtime,
  • accrued holiday on unpaid sick leave,[15]
  • income protection benefit and personal use of company car (usually running cost or hire car).[16]

Share options will often be excluded by small print.

Bonuses[edit]

To avoid arguments about whether these would have been earned it may make sense to compromise by paying the usual sort of overtime or bonus he would have gotten if working. Courts are astute to employers trying to wriggle out of commission with arguments like "it was not triggered because we dismissed him before pay day".[17] The employer is under a duty to act in good faith,[18] not to excerise discretion spitefully or in bad faith[19] and not to act perversely, irrationally or capriciously.[20]

Deductions[edit]

The deductions that can be made from compensation are:

  • replacement earnings or what the employee should have earned had he bothered to try (failure to mitigate),[21][22]
  • social security actually received[23] or which could have been had he bothered to apply[24] and
  • compensation already awarded for unfair dismissal under the same heading.[25]

Mitigation[edit]

Because it is a contract claim, the employee has a duty to mitigate his loss by seeking employment as soon as possible for as high a wage as possible. So the tribunal or court would deduct earnings from a new job during the correct notice period from compensation due, but if the employer attempts to do this unilaterally, it may simply trigger a claim that would not otherwise have happened had it turned a blind eye to the employee making a couple of weeks' wages out of the situation. Due to the disproportionate cost of employment litigation it is usually sensible for an employer to err on the side of generosity to try to ensure the parting of ways is amicable rather than showing off how many loopholes it can find. Pensions cannot be deducted.[26]

It is possible for a contract to be worded so as to make the pay in lieu of notice a debt to which the employee is entitled even if he gets a new job the next day.[27]

Risks[edit]

Breaches of contract[edit]

Wrongful dismissal is the lesser type of unlawful dismissal, costing only what it would have done to keep the employee during the notice period, but it can be slightly dangerous for the employer due to the potential loss of restrictive covenants and due to the employee being able to start alleging all sorts of breaches of contract to try to use up the £25,000 breach of contract allowance in a tribunal, and if he takes the employer to court instead there is no limit and it could end up paying significant costs.

Examples[edit]

Breaches of contract by the employer serious enough to create a wrongful dismissal are also a constructive dismissal. Wrongful dismissals not caused by insufficient notice will have been caused by another breach such as of the duty not to destroy the mutual bond of trust, and have included failure to inform of pension rights.[28]

The employer has no duty to act what would normally be called in good faith but must not act in bad faith or insufficiently in good faith that it breaks the mutual bond of trust.[29] The obligation is usually not to do anything bad as opposed to doing something good.

Losses[edit]

The employee could allege extra breaches of contract and losses including:

  • loss of earnings and psychiatrist fees for psychiatric injury caused by wrongful dismissal,[30]
  • loss of earnings for the time it would have taken to follow the correct disciplinary procedure,
  • loss of earnings for unpaid sick leave caused by bullying,
  • loss of earnings caused by demotion,
  • loss of earnings caused by stigma of association with a corrupt employer affecting many employees (as opposed to an incident of dishonesty),
  • redundancy pay lost due to being terminated just before he would have qualified for two years' service,
  • loss of health insurance and
  • loss of chance to claim unfair dismissal if wrongfully dismissed so that the statutory notice period would have run over into the second year of service[31] (so employers can defeat the contractual notice period for the purposes of preventing unfair dismissal rights arising).

Defences[edit]

Successful defences have been:

  • the employer discovers the employee was in such serious breach that he could have been summarily dismissed,[32]
  • contract allowed dismissal a without disciplinary procedure as long as notice give or paid in lieu.[33]

Relation to unfair dismissal[edit]

A wrongful dismissal can be a fair or unfair dismissal, just as an unfair dismissal may or may not be a wrongful dismissal in terms of whether the correct notice was given.

If the employee had two year's service he could claim unfair dismissal if there was something wrong with the decision to dismiss as opposed to the length of notice. If the wrongfulness was the lack of grounds then is it pretty certain to also be an unfair dismissal.

The unfair dismissal claim would, if he is well advised, be in respect of the post-termination period and sue in court for wrongful dismissal in respect of the notice period, thus stretching out the statutory limits by making the unfair dismissal limit only start running from a later date to allow perhaps more loss of earnings and ignoring the breach of contract limit by using the court instead of tribunal to deal with wrongful dismissal. The burden of proving double recovery is on the employer and tribunal awards for unfair dismissal can be vague as to what and when they are for.[34]

Relation to constructive dismissal[edit]

A wrongful dismissal can be actual or constructive, but a constructive dismissal is almost certain to be a wrongful dismissal since the correct notice will not have been given if the dismissal was caused by a resignation itself caused by the employer's serious breach of contract. An employee who was constructively dismissed, as well as possibly having a claim for breach of the duty not to destroy the bond of mutual trust, will usually have a claim for wrongful dismissal. As only economic loss can be claimed for breach of contract, the main loss will be earnings due to the lost notice period as opposed to any disgruntlement about the manner or reason for dismissal, so the constructive nature of the dismissal tends to disappear into the claim for lost notice period.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Boyo v Lambeth London Borough Council [1994] ICR 727
  2. ^ Gunton v Richmond upon Thames LBC [1980] ICR 755
  3. ^ General Billposting Co Ltd v Atkinson [1909] AC 118
  4. ^ Abrahams v Performing Rights Society Ltd [1995] ICR 1028
  5. ^ Employment Rights Act 1996 s86
  6. ^ Clark v Fahrenheit 451 (Communications) Ltd EAT/591/99
  7. ^ Barros D'sa v University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust [2001] EWCA Civ 983
  8. ^ Marsh v National Autistic Society [1993] ICR 453
  9. ^ Clarke v BET plc [1997] IRLR 348
  10. ^ Fosca Services (UK) Ltd v Birkett [1996] IRLR 325
  11. ^ Addis v Gramophone Co Ltd [1909]
  12. ^ Malik v Bank of Credit & Commerce International SA [1997] ICR 606
  13. ^ Dunnachie v Kingston upon Hull CC [2004] EWCA Civ 84, CA
  14. ^ M De Luca v Longbridge International plc 2002 LTL 2 September 2002
  15. ^ Brown v Kigass Aero Components Ltd [2002] IRLR 312
  16. ^ Shove v Downs Surgical plc [1984] 1 All ER 7
  17. ^ Brand v Compro Computer Services Ltd [2004] IDS Brief 754
  18. ^ Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald [2003] IRLR 765
  19. ^ Midland Bank plc v McCann, EAT 1041/97
  20. ^ Manor House Healthcare v Hayes, EAT 1196/99
  21. ^ Yetton v Eastwoods Froy Ltd [1967] 1 WLR 104
  22. ^ Hardy v Polk (Leeds) Ltd [2004] IRLR 420
  23. ^ Secretary of State for Employment v Stewart [1996] IRLR 334
  24. ^ Westwood v Secretary of State for Employment [1985] ICR 209
  25. ^ O'Laoire v Jackel International Ltd
  26. ^ Parry v Cleaver [1970] AC 1, HL
  27. ^ Gregory v Wallace [1998] IRLR 387
  28. ^ Scally v Southern Health and Social Services Board [1991] ICR 771
  29. ^ Imperial Group Pension Trust Ltd v Imperial Tobacco Ltd [1991] ICR 524
  30. ^ Gogay v Hertfordshire CC [2000] IRLR 703
  31. ^ Virgin Net Ltd v Sally Harper[2004] EWCA Civ 271
  32. ^ Boston Deep Sea Fishing and Ice Co Ltd v Ansell (1888) 39 ChD 339
  33. ^ Bridgen v American Express Bank Ltd [2000] IRLR 94
  34. ^ O'Laoire v Jackel International Ltd (No 2) [1991] ICR 718

References[edit]