Use of fixed term contracts in primary care can be beneficial to both the employee and the employer, but should be used with caution. Read on to learn about some of the key risks and how to avoid falling foul of the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 (the “Regulations”).
If you are an employee, a fixed-term employment contract offers some benefits, such as a degree of flexibility and the ability to test out working in a new specialism or location.
As an employer, a fixed-term is the ideal solution if a role is established to carry out a temporary or time limited project; where a role requires specialist high-level skills to achieve a certain objective; where there is limited funding available or to cover for sick leave or secondment.
The Regulations are in place to protect an employee’s rights but are frequently overlooked in the busy world of primary care. Some of the issues are explored below.
Less favourable treatment
An employee on a fixed term contract has the same general employment rights as a permanent employee, such as protection against discrimination. In addition, the Regulations protect fixed-term employees from being treated less favourably than permanent staff working for the same employer, unless there is objective justification for the treatment. Employees on fixed-term contracts have a right under the Regulations not to be treated less favourably than comparable permanent employees in relation to:
- terms and conditions of employment
- training, promotions or transfers
- permanent positions within the organisation (employees on fixed-term contracts must be informed of any permanent vacancies that arise)
If an employee believes that they have been treated less favourably than a permanent employee, they can request a written statement from the employer to explain the reasons for the less favourable treatment. The employer must respond to the request within 21 days.
Ending the contract before or after the term
There is no legal requirement to include a notice clause in a fixed-term contract, but it is usually advisable to have one as it allows each party the chance to end the relationship before the expiry date should it be necessary to do so.
If there is no notice period in the contract and one party wishes to end the contract early, the other party may be able to claim damages to cover any losses for the balance of the contract period.
If a fixed term contract is left to run over, then each party will be required to give notice in order to end the employment. The contract will no longer end on the expiry of the fixed term because that moment has passed. Often, the need to serve notice was not envisaged when the contract was entered into, so the question of how long the notice period should be can become the subject of dispute.
Repeated renewals and conversion to permanent employment
You should be aware of the four year rule. A fixed term employee will be considered a permanent employee if they have completed 4 years’ continuous service under one or more fixed term contracts, unless the employer can justify the continued fixed-term status, which is not easy to establish.
If an employee believes that they have become a permanent employee on this four-year basis, they are entitled to ask the employer to confirm in writing that their contract is permanent and no longer fixed-term. The employer must respond within 21 days of such request or, if it does not agree, then it must justify and give reasons as to why it believes that the employment is still for a fixed-term.
Fairness of ending a fixed-term contract
In law, the expiry of a fixed term contract without its renewal is regarded as a dismissal. If an employee has two years continuous service, they will be entitled to claim unfair dismissal if their contract is not renewed. The employer will need to demonstrate that there is a genuinely fair reason for the non-renewal (and there may be redundancy rights to consider) and that a fair process was been followed. It is important that the employer consults with the employee in good time before the expiry of the contract, so the likely impact of the non-renewal of the contract can be properly explored and other potential job opportunities considered.
At DR Solicitors, we specialise in all aspects of primary care, including employment advice and dispute resolution. Please contact us for an initial free consultation by calling 01483 511555 or email [email protected]
About the Author
Karen Black of DR Solicitors has over 20 years’ of specialist experience in employment law. She has been specialising in primary care for 4 years and her knowledge of the latest trends in this ever-changing environment result in her sensitively handling employment disputes and devising practical solutions to keep disruption and costs to a minimum.