In most cases, the question of when a notice of dismissal becomes legally effective is fairly academic. However, every now and again, a case comes along in which the issue is of much greater significance. Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust v Haywood was just such a case and was recently considered by the Supreme Court.
Ms Haywood worked for an NHS trust until she was dismissed by reason of redundancy. The precise date on which her employment terminated became very important because, if her dismissal took effect after her 50th birthday, she would be entitled to much more generous pension benefits.
She was due to turn 50 on 20 July 2011. She was initially placed at risk of redundancy in April 2011. Following a consultation exercise, her employers sent her a dismissal letter on 20 April 2011, at which time Ms Haywood was on holiday. As a result, she only had the opportunity to read the dismissal letter when she returned from her holiday on 27 April 2011.
The Supreme Court had to consider whether the notice of dismissal took effect (i) on the date you would normally expect the letter to have been delivered, (ii) on the date when it was actually delivered or (iii) on the date Ms Haywood actually read the letter (or had a reasonable opportunity to do so).
Neither in the Court of Appeal nor the Supreme Court could the judges unanimously agree on the correct answer to this question. However, by a majority, both courts concluded that option (iii) was correct. Given the facts of the present case, this meant that the notice of dismissal issued to Ms Haywood only took effect on 27 April, when she returned from her holiday. As a result, the 12-week notice period to which she was entitled expired after she turned 50 and therefore she was entitled to the enhanced pension benefits.
What does this mean?
As mentioned above, often the date on which a dismissal notice takes effect is broadly academic. However, if you find yourself in a situation where it is imperative that employment terminates by a specific date, then it pays to be cautious.
Firstly, it is worth checking the employment contract to see whether it prescribes how notice should be given and when it will be effective. In the absence of any contractual provisions in this regard, it may be important to choose a method of communication that ensures that you know when the notice has been received and read. If you are dealing with a situation of this nature and need our guidance, please get in touch.