Choice of companion

11 September 2015

Providing the statutory or contractual minimum isn’t always enough. While it may discharge your legal duty when it comes to giving staff enough holiday leave or paying them a salary, for example, sometimes you need to go further.

Stevens v University of Birmingham

Providing the statutory or contractual minimum isn’t always enough. While it may discharge your legal duty when it comes to giving staff enough holiday leave or paying them a salary, for example, sometimes you need to go further.

Take disciplinary situations. The law says that an employee has the right to be accompanied at hearings by a trade union official or certified union representative, or a work colleague. Refusing to allow them to have a companion from outside those categories could land you in hot water.

Professor Stevens wasn’t a union member and he didn’t have a suitable work colleague to take along to his investigation meeting. This meant that, under the terms of his contract and of the relevant disciplinary policy, he couldn’t strictly speaking take anyone along with him. The University didn’t want to open floodgates by departing from the terms of the policies it had in place and refused to let Professor Stevens call on a representative of the Medical Protection Society, a Dr Palmer who had been involved in the issues from the beginning and who had assisted Professor Stevens.

Was that refusal a breach of contract?

Yes, the University breached the term of mutual trust and confidence, said the Court. It was unfair to take the wording of documents so literally so as to deny Professor Stevens the chance of being accompanied.

A fact-specific case, but one that brings home the importance of taking an overarching fair approach to each situation.


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