Back when I was working at FRU, one of the potential volunteers asked me about whether FRU did Reserve Forces cases. I kind of muddled through because unfortunately at the time, I didn’t really know about them. For those few occasions when you’ve felt that an employee’s been treated so badly it ought to be criminal, you might have Parliament on your side. Unusually dismissing a reservist because he has been or might be called up is a criminal offence.
Reservists generally have the same employment rights as any other employee, and the THE has an excellent summary of some of the rights and obligations for employers of reservists. The Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985 is considered in that summary, but the act gives them some more and is almost certainly one of the least used pieces of employment protection legislation. In a recent Freedom of Information request, the MoJ confirmed that in the financial years from 2008-09 to 2012-13, there were 12 applications from reservists for reinstatement or compensation under the act and only 5 hearings were held.
The 1985 Act creates reinstatement committees and sets up statutory appeals from these committees to an umpire, apparently on law and fact. In practise the umpire will be the president of the EAT ex officio. Reinstatement committees can order employers to reinstate army restate reservists and/or pay compensation when the right to reinstatement conferred by the act has not been complied with. Failing to comply with an order of the reinstatement committee is also a criminal offence.
In summary, the rights conferred are:
- The right to at least 26 weeks reinstatement to an occupation not less favourable to the reservist on terms not less favourable than they were originally employed on;
- If for any reason it is not (or ceases to be) “reasonable and practicable” to continue a reservist’s employment, they are entitled to the “most favourable occupation” on “the most favourable terms and conditions” which are reasonable and practicable. In effect if there is other work they can do, they should be allowed to do it;
An employer can defeat these rights if more than 6 months pass from the end of a call up before they present themselves for work again. It can also be done if the reservist refuses to take up the job without reasonable cause, or if the reservist fails to notify the employer what they rely on as reasonable cause in writing (s1 (4)). There’s also some unusual limitation periods to bring claims. In practice most claims are likely to need to be brought within 13 weeks of an application (or renewal of an application) to be reinstated, although the somewhat different wording to most employment statutes causes some confusion if it is 13 weeks or the usual 13 weeks less one day.
There’s very little case law on the act. Since it came into force in 1985, I have been able to find only two appeals to Umpires from the reinstatement committees. Ironically, in both Slaven v Thermo Engineers Ltd UKEAT/0568/91 and James v Meterological Office UKEAT/1350/00 the president of the EAT thought the case before them was the first one brought to the umpire. James only really helps with the somewhat onerous requirement to renew applications to be reinstated in writing every 13 weeks in order to have the right to complain to the reinstatement committee. This leaves only a single case on the substantive law in Slaven which is somewhat limited in scope to not offering alternatives after a redundancy, although certainly helpful in setting out burdens of proof for the different stages in cases.
Presumably, an employer could show that it would be not reasonable and practicable to take a reservist back if they were dismissed for gross misconduct, it is as yet apparently untested whether the reinstatement committee would require actual proof or adopt the “honest and reasonable belief” test from unfair dismissal. My gut feeling tends towards the latter as it probably isn’t reasonable and practicable to take back an employee who the employer has justifiably lost all trust and confidence in.
It would require an employer with a somewhat unhealthy appetite for litigation to take a chance on any of the other traditional reasons for dismissal though given the lack of case law, especially with the priority given to reservists for other jobs even where a dismissal was not for redundancy. The phrase “reasonable and practicable” has an attractive sound to employment professionals used to dealing with ET claims out of time, but the “and” in the act as well as the judgment in Slaven suggests a disjunctive tests with an employer needing to get over both hurdles to win rather than a composite question of “reasonable practicability”.
You might not come across many reserve forces employees in your time advising clients, but if you do, this stuff is worth knowing. The additional protections available to them, along with the more severe penalties for employers who get it wrong in some situations are probably likely to help with settlements for claimant lawyers. For respondent advice, the lack of case law and there being no power to award costs is probably likely to make any reinstatement committee defence something of a nightmare, but hopefully forearmed is forewarned.