Contractual staff handbooks – change them at your peril!

Posted by: Clare Nicolaou Employment lawyer,  Novalex Solicitors

A sober consideration for employers if your handbooks are contractual…..

An interesting recent High Court case has confirmed that an employer cannot unilaterally change the terms of a staff handbook in relation to its procedures for managing absence.

The Department for Transport (DfT) is responsible for a number of different agencies, each of which has a departmental handbook, broadly similar to that of the others. In this case the issue was to do with trigger points for attendance management. The handbooks allowed employees to have between 8 and 21 days off sick (depending on the agency) before a formal attendance process was triggered, and the policy was stated to be contractual.

The DfT wanted to bring in changes to its attendance policy and following unsuccessful negotiations with its trade unions it decided to unilaterally impose a change such that the trigger point would now be 5 days or 3 occasions of absence within a rolling 12 month period.

In a group legal action 7 claimants working across different agencies took the matter to court. They sought a declaration that the changes were not binding and that their original contracts of employment subsisted.

The High Court agreed and granted the declaration. They decided that the change was detrimental to the claimants and that the DfT was not entitled to make these changes unilaterally. The original position remained.  Whilst this case was “fact specific” and is more complex than a brief blog allows, there is a moral to this story:

– employers may be better off stating their policies to be non-contractual if they want to make unilateral changes.


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