Springhouse Solicitors

Clause allowing changes to contract effective?

Could school change teacher’s contract, which said it was “subject to variation, depending on the requirements of the school timetable”?

Background

We have recently reported on two cases where employers have tried to change the terms of their employee’s contracts without their agreement, relying instead on ‘variation’ clauses in their contracts.

Changes to employment contracts generally need to be agreed with the employee, and the courts will be very reluctant to let employers take advantage of any flexibility clauses.

This case is no exception, and the EAT did not let the employer in this case (St Mary’s School in Colchester) rely on its flexibility clauses. These expressly stated that teaching times would “be notified separately and may be subject to variation depending upon the requirements of the School Timetable”, and that “During school term time … the Teacher shall work … as may be necessary in the reasonable opinion of the Principal for the proper performance of his/her duties.”

The claimant, Mrs Hart, a part time learning support teacher, had been asked to work under a different pattern of days, and when she refused, after some discussion and consultation, these were forced upon her. The EAT held that the school had no authority to do so and that they had therefore breached Mrs Hart’s contract of employment.

Implications

The approach taken by the EAT in this case was make every effort to construe any flexibility in the contract strictly against the employer, despite the clauses in question being on the face of it in favour flexibility. In light of this and the other cases recently reported, employers should be very wary of relying too readily on any flexibility clauses in their contracts of employment.

It is possible, however, for employers to force contractual changes on employees, where there is a good business reason for this, and it can show that the proper considerations and process has been followed.

If you have any requirement to change the terms and conditions of your employees, please contact our team of experienced employment law solicitors.