Unilateral variation unlawful

Posted: 11th February 2015

RCJIn a vitally important decision, the High Court has ruled that a government department had no lawful right to unilaterally change the terms of its employees’ contracts to their detriment without first obtaining their consent.

Staff handbooks given to all Department for Transport (DfT) employees laid down detailed procedures for dealing with absences on sick leave. After 21 days of such leave in any 12-month period, workers would first be talked to informally. However, if attendance issues continued, written warnings and even dismissal could result.

The DfT had purported to vary those procedures by, amongst other things, reducing the 21-day ‘trigger point’ to just five days. Formal proceedings would also commence after a much shorter period of absence than previously. The changes were made without obtaining the agreement of the large number of workers affected.

In challenging the variations on behalf of their members, three trade unions pointed out that the handbooks specifically informed employees that their contracts ‘cannot be changed detrimentally without your agreement’. Ruling in favour of the workers, the Court found that the relevant parts of the handbook which dealt with attendance management were incorporated in their contracts.

The changes made by the DfT were clearly ‘detrimental’ to its employees and the Court found that it had no right to impose them unilaterally. The variations had no effect and any attempt by the DfT to implement them in individual cases would amount to a breach of contract.