Alcohol at Workplace Festivities – The Law is Not a Party Pooper!

Workplace social events are a time-honoured means of rewarding staff and boosting morale, but the presence of alcohol means that they are not without risk. The High Court’s ruling in the case of a woman who was seriously injured on the dancefloor showed, however, that the law is not a party pooper.

The case concerned a Christmas gathering held at a university research institute and organised by a medical charity. One of those present was a visiting scientist, who had been drinking alcohol and was in high spirits. He lost his footing whilst attempting to lift the woman up on the dancefloor without her consent.

She fell to the floor, suffering a serious back injury, and took legal action against the charity, claiming up to £300,000 in compensation. In dismissing her claim, however, a judge ruled that the charity had not been negligent and was not in any event responsible for the behaviour of the scientist, who was not its employee and whose inebriated actions were far removed from his work at the institute.

In dismissing the woman’s appeal against that decision, the Court found some merit in the charity’s plea that a ruling in her favour, whilst not meaning that Christmas is cancelled, would act as a disincentive to workplace parties and would be viewed by the man on the Clapham omnibus as an example of health and safety gone mad.

The charity had carried out a risk assessment before the event and did not dispute that it owed the woman a duty of care. However, the scientist had previously picked up three other women, without incident or complaint, and no one present at the event had considered his behaviour so extreme as to merit intervention.

The Court noted that it did not require a risk assessment to establish the well-known disinhibiting effects of alcohol. Arguments that organisers of workplace parties should, amongst other things, provide specially trained staff and require guests to sign written guarantees of good behaviour defied common sense. The Court could also find no fault in the judge’s decision that the charity did not bear vicarious liability for the scientist’s behaviour.

New ‘Vento’ Bands

The Presidents of the Employment Tribunals in England & Wales and Scotland have issued a joint Second Addendum, updating earlier Presidential Guidance issued on 5 September 2017, announcing the rates payable for the three bands that are used by Employment Tribunals when assessing the amount of compensation payable for injury to feelings in discrimination and whistleblowing cases. These are often called the ‘Vento’ bands, after the 2002 case in which the Court of Appeal gave guidance on this issue (Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police).

The new rates take account of the Retail Prices Index and apply to claims presented on or after 6 April 2019. They are as follows:

  • Lower band – between £900 and £8,800. Awards in this range are appropriate where the act of discrimination is an isolated or one-off occurrence;
  • Middle band – between £8,800 and £26,300. Awards in this range are made in serious cases but where an award in the top band is not merited; and
  • Top band – between £26,300 and £44,000. Awards in this range are made in the most serious cases, such as where there has been a lengthy campaign of discriminatory harassment. Only in exceptional circumstances will a compensation award for injury to feelings exceed the upper limit.

High Court Enforces Partnership Agreement Non-Compete Clause

Validly restricting the post-termination conduct of employees and partners involves striking a careful balance between business protection and personal freedom, and that is why professional drafting is indispensable. An instructive case on point concerned a partner in a professional services firm who was banned from joining a competitor for six months following his retirement.

After the firm approved the man’s retirement, he was placed on gardening leave for nine months prior to the date of his retirement. Thereafter, for a further six months, a clause in the firm’s membership agreement forbade him from joining as a partner or member any business in competition with the firm or other firms connected to it, either in the UK or overseas.

About a month after the end of his gardening leave, the man announced his intention to take up a post with a competitor. The firm was concerned that his senior role had given him access to its confidential information and sought an injunction to hold him to the terms of the membership agreement. The man argued that the non-compete clause was invalid in that it was too broad in its scope and unfairly prevented him from making a living. He also submitted that the six-month period, when combined with the period of gardening leave, was unreasonably long.

In granting the injunction sought, however, the Court noted that the dispute in respect of the validity of the non-compete clause had been referred for resolution by an arbitrator under the terms of the membership agreement. That arbitration could take place speedily, and in any event before the expiry of the six-month period.

The Court observed that the man had been paid a substantial sum of money whilst on gardening leave and was aware throughout that the firm was seeking to enforce the non-compete clause. The firm had presented an arguable case that the order was necessary to protect its legitimate interests in maintaining confidentiality. It had established a serious issue to be tried and the balance of convenience also fell in favour of the injunction being granted.

French Lawyer Tests Limits of UK Employment Tribunals’ Territorial Reach

The territorial reach of UK Employment Tribunals (ETs) is not without limit and the overseas presence of many British businesses can give rise to difficult jurisdictional issues. A recent case concerned a French lawyer who worked in the Paris office of an international law firm based in London.

The lawyer, a partner in the firm, launched ET proceedings after she was required to retire. She claimed that male colleagues had been paid more than her and that the circumstances of her departure revealed direct sex and race discrimination which amounted to victimisation. The ET, however, dismissed her claims on the basis that it lacked territorial jurisdiction to consider them.

In ruling on her challenge to that decision, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) noted that the firm, although based in London, has 24 offices worldwide. The Paris office was not a wholly independent business, but nor was it a mere outpost or satellite of the London HQ. She visited the London office every few months and, as a partner in a UK firm, she was required to register with the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

In dismissing her appeal, however, the EAT observed that the Paris office would, to its clients, have appeared practically indistinguishable from an independent French law firm. As a French national, the lawyer lived and worked in her homeland and was qualified to practise French law. Her ad hoc visits to London were generally brief and were of little relevance.  She was paid in Euros, into a French bank account, and she paid tax in France.

Overall, her connection to the UK was weak and there were no exceptional features that required the ET to assume jurisdiction. The EAT also dismissed her appeal against the ET’s rejection, again on jurisdictional grounds, of her separate discrimination claims against an individual partner in the Paris office.

ACAS Suffers Setback in Dispute With Its Own Employees’ Trade Union

Few would fail to appreciate the irony of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) being embroiled in a dispute with a trade union representing its own employees. However, the falling out provided the occasion for an important test case on the extent to which public employers are obliged to consult their staff.

The Public and Commercial Services Union complained that Acas had failed to consult its employees pursuant to a negotiated agreement. The Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) ruled that it had jurisdiction to consider the complaint under the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004. Acas’s challenge to that decision was later rejected by an Employment Tribunal.

In challenging the latter ruling before the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT), Acas argued that it fell outside the ambit of the Regulations. It pointed out that it is largely funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and that, as a Crown Non-Departmental Public Body, it is entirely staffed by civil servants. It argued that its activities are governmental in nature, rather than economic or competitive, and that its position could be equated to that of a regulator.

In dismissing the appeal, however, the EAT noted that one of the roles performed by Acas is to advise employers on good employment practices, and that such services are paid for. Although that made up only a small part of Acas’s activities, it was nevertheless a remunerated provision of services to a customer. That economic activity was neither ancillary nor so small as to be irrelevant, and was sufficient to bring Acas within the Regulations.

The EAT noted that an economic activity, within the meaning of the Regulations, does not require that payment for goods or services be made by a consumer or end user. It therefore mattered not that Acas is largely dependent on government grants. The EAT also found that an economic activity may include the supply of goods and services by a monopoly in any given market.

The sole point on which the EAT differed from the CAC was in finding that the highly important conciliatory role performed by Acas under the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 is not an economic activity. That role was carried out in the exercise of public powers and thus fell outside the Regulations. That conclusion, however, did not affect the overall outcome of the appeal.

Increases in National Minimum Wage Rates

Published Monday 1st April 2019, 10:00 AM

Employers are reminded that new National Living Wage (NLW) and National Minimum Wage (NMW) rates apply from 1 April 2019. These are as follows:

  • The NLW, which applies to those aged 25 and over, will increase from £7.83 to £8.21 per hour;
  • The NMW for 21- to 24-year-olds will increase from £7.38 to £7.70 per hour;
  • The NMW for 18- to 20-year-olds will increase from £5.90 to £6.15 per hour;
  • The NMW for 16- and 17-year-olds will increase from £4.20 to £4.35 per hour; and
  • The apprentice rate of the NMW, which applies to apprentices aged under 19 or those aged 19 or over and in the first year of their apprenticeship, will increase from £3.70 to £3.90 per hour.

The accommodation offset will increase from £7.00 to £7.55 per day for each day during the pay period that accommodation is provided.