When is sending a letter enough to dismiss someone?

When an employer needs to terminate someone’s employment by a certain date, it is crucial to check the rules on when notices can be sent by post.

The Supreme Court recently ruled in Newcastle-upon-Tyne NHS Foundation Trust v Haywood that sending a letter to an employee who had gone on holiday was not sufficient to communicate her dismissal to her by the date the employer needed her employment to come to an end.

In this case, the employee’s role had become redundant. However, the employer needed to ensure that her employment was properly terminated before her 50th birthday – because if she was made redundant on or after that date, she would be entitled to a substantial early retirement pension.

The employer sent the Claimant a letter of dismissal (giving 12 weeks’ notice) by recorded delivery while she was away on holiday. However, the Claimant did not read the letter until she arrived home a week later. Therefore, she argued that her notice period did not start to run until that date, as she was not made aware of the dismissal until then. As a result, her notice period expired after her 50th birthday.

Unfortunately for the employer, the Claimant’s contract of employment was silent on the question of when notice is deemed to take effect – unlike many modern contracts of employment, which contain a standard clause dealing with this issue.

The case made its way through the courts to the Supreme Court, which agreed with the Claimant, finding that notice of dismissal did not take effect until the employee had both received the letter and either read it or had a reasonable opportunity of doing so. Had the employer wanted to communicate termination earlier, it should have informed the employee in person and followed this up by post.

The case highlights just how crucial it is to have the necessary provisions in place in contracts of employment, and to follow those provisions carefully when considering dismissing someone.