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Dismissal by letter – When is the dismissal effective?

David Reid
19th Oct 2010

Identifying the effective date of termination is more than an academic point.

The Supreme Court (which last year took over from the House of Lords as the highest court of appeal in civil matters throughout the UK) has issued a judgment on the vexed question of when exactly the dismissal of an employee takes effect.

 

The general rule has always been that a dismissal is only effective once it has been communicated. Therefore, if you dismiss an employee by letter, the dismissal will not usually be effective until the employee has read the letter.

 

But what of the employee who deliberately decides not to read the letter? Can they avoid dismissal indefinitely in this way? The law says no, and allows an exception. The dismissal will be effective in these circumstances when the employee has had a reasonable opportunity to read the letter.

 

Identifying the effective date of termination is more than an academic point. It determines the date the employee must be paid until, and it may also have relevance to the question of whether someone has sufficient continuous employment to bring an employment tribunal claim.

 

In the case heard by the Supreme Court, the issue at hand was whether the employee had brought her unfair dismissal claim within the normal time limit of three months from the effective date of termination. The employee had gone away for the weekend when the letter of dismissal arrived at her home. There were family members at home who could have opened the letter and let her know the decision, but she left no instructions for them to do so.

 

If the effective date of termination was the date the letter arrived, then the employee did not bring her claim within the three months prescribed by law and her claim would be dismissed. However, if the effective date of termination was the date she eventually read the letter, then her claim was in time and could proceed.

 

The Supreme Court decided it was reasonable for the employee not to have left instructions with her family for the letter to be opened and therefore, her dismissal did not take effect until she returned home and read the letter. As a result, her claim could proceed.

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