Are your dismissal letters unambiguous?

Employers must write dismissal letters in clear and consistent terms which make the effective date of termination easy to understand, otherwise they could face unexpected tribunal claims.

The Court of Appeal in Lowri Beck Services Ltd v. Patrick Brophy recently upheld the decision of a tribunal to extend the time limit by which a severely dyslexic former employee could raise claims against his previous employer for unfair and wrongful dismissal and disability discrimination.

The claimant was confused about the date of his dismissal.  During a telephone call, his employer told him that his employment was terminated with immediate effect for reasons of gross misconduct.  However, the letter issued to confirm the decision was ambiguously drafted.  It was largely framed as informing the claimant of the decision to terminate his employment rather than simply recording the decision that had already been communicated to him. This led to the claimant misunderstanding the date of dismissal and, as a result, he raised his claims against his former employer after the expiry of the three-month time limit.  

The Court of Appeal’s decision is a useful reminder of the principles established in previous cases about when tribunals will permit an extension to the usual time limit. Amongst other things, the Court noted that a mistaken belief about the relevant time limits is a persuasive factor in assessing extension applications.  In relation to disability discrimination, the overarching consideration is whether it is just and equitable to extend the time limit in which a claimant may bring a claim.

The Court of Appeal held that the claimant in this case thought that he had raised his respective claims within the time limit as a result of the employer’s letter and that he had made a genuine mistake by lodging his claims late. The Court therefore found the tribunal had not been wrong in exercising its discretion to allow an extension of the time limit.

The key takeaway point for employers is a reminder that it is always important to draft correspondence with employees so someone with no prior factual knowledge can understand it.  It is particularly crucial to ensure there is no room for doubt over the date of dismissal.

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