Tribunal ruling required to resolve dispute over academic's probationary period and dismissal

The Employment Appeal Tribunal has upheld the employment tribunal’s ruling about the early termination of a lecturer’s contract at the University of Essex. The dispute arose over whether the University was entitled to end Dr Altes’ probationary period early, without going through the “good cause” procedure laid down by the University’s Ordinances.

Like most academics appointed to permanent posts in the HE sector, Dr Altes’ contract of employment incorporated the relevant provisions of the University’s Ordinances. These included provisions which limited the circumstances in which her contract could be ended, by defining the circumstances in which termination would be justified (ie what would amount to “good cause” for ending the appointment).

Dr Altes’ contract of employment provided for a three year probationary period. The procedure for confirming her appointment was set out in the Ordinances. However, while the Ordinances provided for confirmation in post before the end of the probationary period, neither document contained any express provisions about whether the University was able to serve notice of termination before the third anniversary of her appointment.

Having looked at all the relevant documents, which included a capability procedure and annual review procedures for academic staff as well as the Ordinances, the EAT upheld the tribunal’s ruling that the contract of employment should be interpreted to allow the University to end the probation period early without going through the good cause procedure. Applying the ordinary rules of contractual interpretation, it concluded that must have been the result the parties would have intended, and accorded with “employment common sense”.

Despite the common legal framework, academics’ contracts differ considerably from university to university, so a similar dispute elsewhere might have a different outcome. However, this decision is a valuable illustration of the difficulties that can arise when the operative provisions of an employment contract are scattered across a variety of documents, possibly drafted by different people at different times.

No legal document can provide for every eventuality, but it is well worth reviewing all the documents which confer contractual rights on academics from time to time, to make sure that they make adequate provision for the situations that most commonly arise in practice.  Whether a lengthy probationary period can be ended early is clearly one of these.

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Nick Abbott


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