Unfair and Wrongful Dismissal
An employee dismissed without notice will often claim both unfair and wrongful dismissal. These are two distinct claims.
Unfair dismissal is concerned with the reasonableness of the employer’s decision to dismiss the employee.
Wrongful dismissal is a contractual claim centred around whether the employer was entitled to dismiss the employee without giving the full contractual notice required.
That in turn depends on whether or not the employee was actually guilty of gross misconduct. An employer might reasonably believe that the employee committed gross misconduct and successfully defend the unfair dismissal claim, but lose on the issue of wrongful dismissal because the Tribunal believes in the employee’s innocence. In such a case the employee would be entitled to damages covering the notice that should have been given.
Tribunals still struggle sometimes with the distinction. In East Coast Mainline Company Ltd v Cameron the employee was a shunter in a train depot. He was dismissed when he allowed a goods train to move off while the driver of another train was out of his cabin. The driver was ‘brushed’ by the goods train and could easily have been killed.
At the first hearing the Tribunal found that the dismissal was fair because the employer had reasonably concluded that the employee was guilty of gross misconduct – and dismissed the wrongful dismissal claim on the same basis. The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) sent that issue back so that the Tribunal could determine whether the employee was guilty of gross misconduct. When the case was re-heard the Tribunal upheld the wrongful dismissal claim. The conduct in question was not deliberate and was a one-off incident of carelessness. Taking into account the employee’s length of service (more than 30 years) what he had done did not amount to gross misconduct.
A second appeal to the EAT led to this finding being overturned. Length of service was not a legally relevant question in a wrongful dismissal claim. What mattered was the seriousness of the conduct itself, not whether it was reasonable to dismiss. A single act of carelessness could amount to gross misconduct if the lapse was serious enough – and it was certainly so in this case where it had very nearly led to a loss of life. Rather than send the matter back to be considered for a third time, the EAT simply held that the wrongful dismissal claim should fail.
Unfair Dismissal – Gross Misconduct
In considering a wrongful dismissal claim, the Tribunal needs to decide whether or not the employee is guilty of gross misconduct. When it comes to unfair dismissal that is precisely what the Tribunal should not do – at least until it comes to assess compensation. It should ask whether the employer reached a conclusion that was reasonably open to it – not whether it agrees with that conclusion. A good example of the wrong approach is the case of Tai Tarian Ltd v Christie. Mr Christie was a maintenance worker for a housing association. He was dismissed when a tenant complained that he had made a series of homophobic remarks when working on her property, making her feel uncomfortable. He denied the allegations completely and argued that his dismissal was unfair.
The Tribunal upheld his claim. It relied on the fact that the employer had accepted that Mr Christie was not actually homophobic and concluded that they could not have therefore believed that he had said what he was accused of saying. The EAT held that this was clearly wrong and was no basis for finding that the employer had not believed that the comments had indeed been made.
The Tribunal had been entitled to criticise the employer for not allowing the employee to see the full notes of evidence taken from the anonymous witness but had not explained why it was unreasonable of the employer to accept her account. The Tribunal had held that she had embellished her story, but the evidence did not bear that out, showing only minor inconsistencies in the two separate accounts that she had given to the employer. The Tribunal had pointed out that she had a potential motive for fabricating her story (as a result of a previous interaction with Mr Christie) but had not considered whether the employer’s acceptance of her account was reasonable. Clearly the Tribunal had started from the position that it believed Mr Christie’s denials and then worked backwards from there.
The finding of unfair dismissal was overturned, and the case sent back to a fresh Tribunal to be re-heard.
Right to Work in the UK
An employer must be careful to avoid employing someone who does not have the right to work in the UK. Doing so knowingly is a criminal offence and inadvertently employing someone who is working illegally can lead to a civil penalty of up to £20,000 for an employer who has not carried out a proper documentation check. At the same time it is important not to react too hastily in assuming that an employee’s permission to work has expired. A genuine but mistaken belief that an employee is not entitled to work in the UK can be a fair reason for dismissal, but the employer still needs to behave reasonably. Tribunals will understand that an employer needs to behave promptly, but that will not excuse a failure to examine the situation calmly and make proper enquiries – as the case of Sanha v Facilicom Cleaning Services Ltd shows.
Mr Sanha was dismissed when his employer believed that his permission to work in the UK had expired. The Home Office online checking service had no record of him making an application to renew his permission, and the employer therefore believed that they had no choice but to dismiss. As it turned out, however, he had made such an application. What was more, he was married to an EU citizen working in the UK and was entitled to work in the UK on that basis alone. The dismissal was held to be unfair because the employer should have made more detailed enquiries into his status and realised that the application he had made would not have made its way into the Home Office’s system by the time they carried out the check.
The appeal to the EAT was concerned with compensation – should the award be reduced to reflect the contributory fault of the employee? The EAT accepted that the employee’s conduct could be regarded as blameworthy in that he had been less than forthcoming about his correspondence with the Home Office. On the other hand the employer’s decision to dismiss was not actually influenced by the employee’s failure to provide a fuller account of his status. The employer had acted purely on the basis of the results on the online checking service, so the employee’s conduct had not contributed to the decision to dismiss.
Here to Help
Our employment solicitors can advise employers and employees about unfair and wrongful dismissal, please get in touch with Richard Gvero, Joint Senior Partner and Head of Employment.
Please note the contents of this blog are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.