In Williams v. Governing Body of Alderman Davies Church in Wales Primary School, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) considered the “last straw” doctrine and whether a truly trivial act which causes an employee to resign can then be relied upon in a claim of constructive unfair dismissal.
In order to succeed in a claim of constructive unfair dismissal, an employee has to show that the employer has fundamentally breached a term of their contract of employment. This is often the implied duty of trust and confidence. The “last straw” doctrine allows an employee to rely on a series of breaches over a period of time which together amount to a breach of trust and confidence. In previous case law, it has been decided that the last straw must not be something totally innocuous and that it must contribute something to the breach, although this may be insignificant.
Mr Williams was a teacher in the school. Allegations were made against him relating to a child protection matter. He was suspended but not given any details of the allegations against him. A Social Services investigation decided that no further action should be taken and Mr Williams was allowed to return to school, but not to teaching duties while the school carried out its own investigation. He was still not given full details of the allegation he was facing. Mr Williams then went off sick with stress.
Mr Williams had downloaded certain documents that he believed would assist him in defending any allegations and shared these with a fellow teacher, Mrs Sydenham, who was also his union representative. The school commenced disciplinary proceedings against both Mr Williams and Mrs Sydenham. When he wished to speak to Mrs Sydenham, the school told him that he could not contact her. He then resigned, citing the reason as the refusal to allow him to contact Mrs Sydenham.
The Employment Tribunal was highly critical of the school but decided that Mr Williams’ claim for constructive unfair dismissal must fail because the “last straw” (refusal to allow him to contact Mrs Sydenham) was not unreasonable given the ongoing disciplinary investigation and, therefore, was innocuous. Mr Williams appealed.
The EAT allowed the appeal. It decided that, as long as there has been a breach of contract by the employer and the employee has resigned in response, at least in part, to that breach, a constructive unfair dismissal claim will succeed. In this case, Mr Williams had not affirmed the previous breaches of contract and so could still rely on them.
This case is a useful reminder that even seemingly trivial acts can still tip an employee into resigning. In cases where there has been a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence which has not been affirmed by the employee, they may still succeed with a constructive unfair dismissal claim.