Mr N Crouchman, a psychiatric nurse, was dismissed without notice on 21 February 2008 for alleged gross misconduct. This followed allegations that he had behaved inappropriately towards a female patient. His appeal hearing took place nearly three months later, on 19 May 2008. He was told that the decision to dismiss had been upheld, and in the circumstances he considered that bringing an unfair dismissal claim would not be productive; rather, it would be “hopeless”.
Crouchman received a letter setting out the reasons behind the appeal panel’s decision on 28 May 2008, more than three months after the dismissal. This indicated that the appeal panel had not fully endorsed the original hearing’s findings, which was inconsistent with what he had previously been told. As a result, Crouchman believed for the first time that he did in fact have good grounds for bringing an unfair dismissal claim. He submitted a claim form the same day.
Strict time limits govern when a claim form must be presented to the Employment Tribunal. For most claims, the time limit is three months from the date of the act complained of – in unfair dismissal cases, the date of dismissal. However, a claimant is able to apply to the tribunal for it to exercise its discretion to extend the time limit, in certain circumstances. In unfair dismissal claims, the time limit can be extended if it was “not reasonably practicable” to submit the claim within three months of the date of dismissal.
One established category of cases where extension may be allowed is where new information is discovered by the claimant which leads him/her to believe that he/she now has a good claim.
The tribunal held that it had not been reasonably practicable for Crouchman to submit his claim in time, and so his claim could proceed. On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) upheld the original decision.
The EAT drew some principles from existing case law, including:
that ignorance of a “crucial” or “fundamental” fact will in principle be a circumstance rendering it impracticable to present that claim;
that a fact will be “crucial” or “fundamental” if on hearing it the claimant’s state of mind genuinely and reasonably changes from one where he does not believe he has grounds for the claim to one where he does;
but that ignorance of the fact in question will not render it “not reasonably practicable” to present the claim unless the ignorance is reasonable and the change of belief in light of the new information is also reasonable.
Here, the content of the appeal outcome letter constituted a crucial or fundamental fact which genuinely and reasonably led Crouchman to change his belief that he had no grounds to bring an unfair dismissal claim to a belief that he did so.
Since Crouchman had submitted his claim to the tribunal on the same day, this was within a reasonable further time, and so the tribunal had jurisdiction to hear it.
This case is a useful illustration of the types of situation where new information can lead to the usually strict rules on time limits being relaxed. However, the circumstances in which the extension will apply will be relatively rare. For instance, the newly discovered information has to change the claimant’s mind from not believing he had a case, to believing he has a case strong enough to litigate. A claimant who was already minded to take action but had simply not got round to it could not use further information to make up for having missed the time limit.
Employers would also hope that it would be unusual for a dismissal appeal outcome letter to be delivered more than three months after the dismissal.
Bob Cordran, partner, Thomas Eggar