Employment Law Case Update – July 2023

A round-up of the most significant employment law cases to be published over the last month, and it’s a varied bag. We look at what lead to an interim injunction before a disciplinary hearing, whether it was lawful for the government to revoke legislation without consultation, whether a person can have two employers at the same time for the same work, whether a dismissal meeting is always needed to ensure a fair process and how a lay tribunal member could be considered to have been biased.

  • Injunctions: Witnesses and disclosure of documents at disciplinary hearings
  • Strikes: Could the government revoke legislation to prevent strikers being replaced by agency staff?
  • Worker Status: Can a person have two different employers at the same time for the same work?
  • Unfair Dismissal: Lack of dismissal meeting does not render dismissal unfair
  • Tribunals: Apparent bias in case of lay member posting on social media

Injunctions: Witnesses and disclosure of documents at disciplinary hearings

In Colbert v Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust [2023] EWHC 1672 (KB), the Claimant, Dr Serryth Colbert, was a consultant in oral and maxillofacial surgery, employed by the Defendant, the Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust. The Claimant was the subject of disciplinary proceedings brought by the Defendant following allegations that he intimidated and bullied colleagues and other allegations of misconduct. The Claimant issued proceedings on 30 May 2023 seeking an interim injunction relating to the conduct by the Defendant of the disciplinary process.

This case involved two issues in dispute: 1) whether the Claimant had a right to require the attendance of individuals at a disciplinary hearing, who were interviewed as part of the investigation of allegations against him, but who the Defendant was not proposing to call to give evidence, and 2) whether the Claimant was entitled to disclosure of specific documents as part of the disciplinary process, and in particular to an unredacted report that had been produced into alleged misconduct in his department. The Claimant claimed that the way the Defendant had dealt with those two matters breached express contractual obligations, contained in two documents which he contended formed part of his contract: (1) “Maintaining High Professional Standards in the Modern NHS” (“MHPS”) published by the Department of Health; and (2) “Managing Conduct Policy” (“MCP”), the Defendant’s policy for dealing with allegations of misconduct.

In December 2020, the Defendant commissioned an external review to examine the department in which the Claimant worked following allegations having been raised of inappropriate workplace behaviour. A report was produced in February 2021 (“the Atkinson Report”) by the external reviewer, and considered the behaviour of a number of individuals, including the Claimant, and made recommendations, one of which was that the Claimant should be investigated for alleged bullying / inappropriate behaviour. The Claimant was excluded from work from 8 March 2021 while an investigation was carried out (conducted pursuant to the MHPS). An external report was commissioned involving the interviewing of 21 witnesses, including the claimant, and a further report submitted in December 2021 (“the Cunningham Report”). The Report made a number of critical findings about the Claimant including that he had displayed intimidating and bullying behaviour towards a number of colleagues.

On 16 December 2021 a letter was sent to the Claimant with the outcome of the investigation, concluding that the Claimant had a case to answer in relation to a series of allegations, and that the matter would proceed to a disciplinary panel, to be held in January 2023, in accordance with the Defendant’s MCP. The letter stated who would be called as witnesses for the Defendant and who else would be giving evidence, and invited the Claimant to identify who he would be calling, and enclosed a number of documents including the Cunningham Report and a redacted copy of the Atkinson Report (the redactions relating to the other individuals identified by the report).

In January the Claimant wrote back to state the Claimant required that 11 named individuals, described as “management witnesses”, should be present so they could be questioned, and that the Claimant intended to call “around 30 additional witnesses subject to their availability”, and asked for the hearing date to be rescheduled. The Defendant responded by acceding to a later hearing date (May) but declined to provide the 11 witnesses, other than Ms Cunningham who had prepared the second report, and said that he had received all the relevant documents, and the redacted parts of the Atkinson report related only to other members of staff and were not relevant to this investigation.

The Claimant sent a letter before claim setting out:

1. Grounds: The alleged Breaches of Contract by the Defendants are the failure to follow its disciplinary procedures, and to hold a disciplinary hearing in accordance with the Claimant’s contractual rights. These rights are confirmed in the doctor’s employment contract, in [the MHPS] and in the [MCP].

2. The failure to require the Defendant’s primary witnesses to attend the disciplinary hearing so that they can be cross examined by the Claimant’s chosen representative.

3. The failure to allow the Claimant to bring his chosen representative to represent him at the hearing in breach of the amended procedure.

4. The failure to disclose documents pertaining to the disciplinary case in line with MHPS.

The Defendant declined to agree and due to the tight schedule that the letters had caused prior to the rescheduled May disciplinary hearing, the Claimant issued an interim injunction for breach of the Claimant’s contract – the order sought to ensure un-redacted disclosure of all documents, to ensure that all the Defendant’s management witnesses attend the disciplinary hearing and the Claimant’s chosen representative was allowed to represent him at the disciplinary hearing and conduct cross-examination.

In the High Court, (King’s Bench Division) the judge held that, on the correct reading of the Defendant employer’s policy for dealing with allegations of misconduct (the MCP), the employee did not have an unqualified right to insist that any ‘management witness’ could be required to attend a disciplinary hearing to be cross-examined. Accordingly, the court dismissed the employee’s application for an interim injunction. The employee had sought the injunction to ensure unredacted disclosure of all documents, and to ensure that all the defendant’s management witnesses attended the disciplinary hearing, so that they could be cross-examined, and he had contended that the employer had breached express contractual obligations.

The court held that there was no serious issue to be tried, because: (i) the claimant had no real prospect of establishing that his interpretation of the relevant paragraph of the MCP (namely that it meant that the employer had to ensure the attendance at any rescheduled disciplinary hearing of all management witnesses, so that they can be subject to cross examination) was correct; and (ii) there was a good argument that the proceedings should run their course before it would be appropriate for the court to intervene, in circumstances where it was settled law that courts should not become involved in the ‘micromanagement’ of disciplinary proceedings. Further, the court held that the employee had no real prospect of establishing that an investigative report that a Trust had commissioned into a department at a hospital constituted ‘correspondence’, as the word was ordinarily understood or as it was intended to be used in the MHPS. Moreover, there was no real prospect of his establishing that ‘relevant’ material had been withheld from the employee and, even if the report amounted to correspondence, he would not have an unqualified right to have the unredacted report disclosed to him.

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Strikes: Could the government revoke legislation to prevent strikers being replaced by agency staff?

In R (on the application of ASLEF and others) v Secretary of State for Business and Trade [2023] EWHC 1781 (Admin) the High Court considered whether it was lawful for the government, without consultation, to revoke legislation which prevented workers on strike being replaced by agency workers. From 1976 it was unlawful for an employment business knowingly to introduce or supply workers to an employer to carry out the work of employees who were taking part in official industrial action. Regulations made pursuant to section 5 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973 and most recently regulation 7 of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003 (SI 2003/3319 – “the 2003 Regulations”), made this a criminal offence.

In 2015, the Government conducted a public consultation on a proposal to revoke regulation 7. The majority of the responses did not favour this change in the law and, in 2016, it was decided not to go ahead. In June 2022, however, the Government decided, in the context of industrial action in the rail sector and other anticipated industrial action, that regulation 7 would be revoked without further public consultation. On 27 June 2022, the draft Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 (SI 2022/852 – “the 2022 Regulations”) were therefore laid before Parliament, regulation 2(a) of which implemented this measure. The 2022 Regulations were made by the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (“BEIS”), Mr Kwasi Kwarteng, on 20 July 2022 and they came into effect on 21 July 2022.

Thirteen trade unions challenged the then Secretary of State’s decision to make the 2022 Regulations. The challenge is on two grounds:

  1. that he failed to comply with his statutory duty, under section 12(2) of the 1973 Act, to consult before making the 2022 Regulations (“Ground 1”).
  2. it is contended that, by making the 2022 Regulations, the Secretary of State breached his duty, under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”), to prevent unlawful interference with the rights of trade unions and their members (“Ground 2”).

The High Court confirmed that the challenge succeeded on the basis of Ground 1 and quashed the Regulations. In particular, it found that the decision to revoke the legislation preventing the use of agency workers in place of striking workers “was not informed by, or tested against, the views of and the evidence of bodies which were representative of the interests concerned”. The Secretary of State could not rely upon consultation which had taken place 7 years earlier on the same point (and was found not to have done so in any event).

The High Court, having upheld Ground 1, decided not to express a view on the more contentious Ground 2.

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Worker Status: Can a person have two different employers at the same time for the same work?

In United Taxis Ltd v Comolly [2023] EAT 93,  the EAT considered Mr Comolly’s worker status. He is a taxi driver, registered with United Taxis and who then did work driving United Taxis’ passengers, through one of its shareholders, Mr Parkinson, using his taxi.  After that relationship came to an end he did work driving United Taxis’ passengers, through another shareholder, Mr Tidman, using his taxi.  After that relationship ended he brought various complaints to the employment tribunal asserting that he was either an employee or a worker of United Taxis or Mr Tidman.

The tribunal determined as preliminary issues that Mr Comolly was a worker of United Taxis and an employee of Mr Tidman. On the facts found, the tribunal properly concluded that United Taxis’ passengers’ contracts were, and were solely, with United Taxis. It also properly concluded that, under Mr Comolly’s contract with Mr Tidman, Mr Comolly provided services to him in exchange for payment.  United Taxis contracted out the task of conveying its passengers to Mr Tidman, who in turn sub-contracted it to Mr Comolly. 

However, the EAT noted that the key cases of Brook Street Bureau v Dacas and Cable & Wireless v Muscat had found the concept of dual employment to be “problematic” and concluded that it could not “see how [the problems] could be overcome”. It therefore found that the tribunal erred in finding that Mr Tidman had a contract with United Taxis under which he also did work for it.  There was no necessity to imply such a contract, whether from the fact that he registered with United Taxis, and was required to comply with its rules and byelaws as a condition of being permitted to convey its passengers, or otherwise.  The tribunal could also not properly find that he was simultaneously an employee or worker of two employers in respect of the same work.

The tribunal also erred in finding that Mr Comolly’s contract with Mr Tidman was a contract of employment, in particular in its approach to the question of control. In particular, although Mr Tidman controlled when the taxi was available to Mr Comolly, he had no control over what Mr Comolly did during the time that the taxi was available to him. Drawing on its findings of fact, a finding was substituted that Mr Comolly was a worker of Mr Tidman.

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Unfair Dismissal: Lack of dismissal meeting does not render dismissal unfair

In Charalambous v National Bank of Greece [2023] EAT 75, the EAT considered the process of dismissal. It found that the lack of a meeting between an employee and the dismissing officer will not in and of itself, in all circumstances, make a dismissal unfair. It found that the decision in Budgen & Co v Thomas [1976] ICR 344 (EAT), was not an authority for the proposition that a dismissing officer must always have direct communication with an employee in order for a misconduct dismissal to be fair. Such a meeting is desirable and good practice but what is essential is that the employee is given the opportunity to ‘say whatever he or she wishes to say’ and there is nothing to say that this communication cannot, in principle, be in writing or by way of a report to the dismissing officer, according to the EAT. In any event, the Employment Tribunal had looked at the procedure adopted by the respondent as a whole: it found that any procedural unfairness in the initial decision to dismiss was sufficiently addressed by the internal appeal, which involved a meeting between the claimant and the decision-maker. The claimant’s appeal against the Employment Tribunal’s finding that her dismissal for misconduct had been fair was therefore dismissed.

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Tribunals: Apparent bias in case of lay member posting on social media

In Aspect Windows (Western) Limited V Retter (as representative of the estate of Mrs C McCrorie) [2023] EAT 95 following the publishing of the decision of the employment tribunal arising from a full merits hearing, one of the lay members of the tribunal posted on her LinkedIn page, a link to a report about the decision in the Mail Online. Followers of hers then responded on LinkedIn and she responded to them.

The unsuccessful Respondent in the employment tribunal appealed on the basis that the LinkedIn posts gave rise to apparent bias against it. The EAT held that whilst it is possible that what a tribunal member said about a case after the event could shed light as to their approach to the hearing of it, the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the contents of these posts and applying the guidance in Magill v Porter [2001] UKHL 67 and other pertinent authorities, would not in the circumstances consider the lay member was biased in favour of the Claimant. The appeal was therefore dismissed.

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Further Information:

If you would like any additional information, please contact Anne-Marie Pavitt or Sophie Banks on: hello@dixcartuk.com

The information provided within this document is for general informational purposes only. While every effort has been made to ensure its accuracy, no responsibility can be accepted for inaccuracies. Readers are advised that laws and practices may change over time. This document is provided solely for informational purposes and does not constitute accounting, legal, or tax advice. Professional advice should be sought before making any decisions based on the contents of this document.