Fans of Radio 4’s The Archers will be aware that Brian has sacked Stella as the manager of Home Farm.
The background is that Stella spent £150,000 on a new seed drill without Brian’s approval so he has decided to treat the matter as gross misconduct and dismiss her with immediate effect.
Stella has taken advice and has been told that she has a good claim of unfair dismissal and possibly sex discrimination too (apparently on the basis that so few farm managers are women).
Leaving aside for one moment the fact that The Archers is a work of fiction, does Stella have a claim?
In order to bring a claim of unfair dismissal, she must have been employed continuously for more than two years when she was dismissed. I am going to assume that she was employed rather than engaged by Brian on a self-employed basis, but if I am wrong to make that assumption then her claim will fail as she must be an employee to be protected against unfair dismissal.
Does she have the requisite two years’ service? A quirk in the rules means that in fact she has to have been employed for 1 year and 51 weeks at the point of her immediate dismissal. As far as I can tell, Stella’s character first appeared in The Archers in 2022 so she does not seem to have been employed for long enough to claim. The length of service required can sometimes be cause for confusion as it used to be just one year, but it has been set at two years for more than a decade now.
If she does have two years’ service, does she have a claim? Well, yes, it does seem that her dismissal was at least procedurally unfair.
Assuming the minimum service requirement was met, her employer was under an obligation to a) follow a fair process and b) identify a fair reason before terminating her employment. It seems that the decision was made on the spot and without warning or any of the proper processes which are expected. Brian should have carried out a thorough investigation, set out the allegations and the possible outcomes to Stella in advance of the disciplinary meeting and allowed her the right to be accompanied to the meeting by a trade union representative or colleague. She should also have been afforded the opportunity to appeal against his decision.
Brian might be able to deal with these procedural issues in his defence of any claim by making a “Polkey” argument, which is to say that even if the flaws in the process had not been present, the end result would have been the same anyway and therefore any compensation should be reduced accordingly. It’s also possible that Brian could say that Stella’s actions contributed to her dismissal, meaning compensation should be reduced on that basis as well.
Did Brian have a fair reason for dismissing and was his decision “within the band of the reasonable responses” available to him? It will depend on the circumstances. If her contract was clear that she was not authorised to buy the drill or if any farm policies (or indeed Brian himself) had made it clear that such expenditure had to be pre-authorised in writing, then her actions may have amounted to gross misconduct. However, if the purchase fell within her remit and she had authority to make the decision, then dismissing her for it could be outside the band of reasonable responses available to her employer, thereby making the decision substantively unfair.
Automatic unfair dismissal
Could Stella claim automatic unfair dismissal? There is no qualifying period of employment for such claims so it’s worth considering. Automatic unfair dismissal is where an employee is dismissed for a limited number of prescribed reasons, including because they have taken maternity leave, raised health and safety concerns or blown the whistle on illegal activity. None of these circumstances appear to be present here.
Whether or not Stella was protected against unfair dismissal, she could have a claim for wrongful dismissal, which is a failure to give her the required notice of termination. If indeed there was gross misconduct then she is not entitled to notice but if the offence was less serious then she is entitled to her notice pay.
Whatever the reason for her dismissal or the fairness of it, she is entitled to a payment in respect of any accrued but untaken holiday entitlement.
And, finally, what about sex discrimination? The mere fact that Stella is a woman and most farm managers are men is a weak basis for such a claim, at least on its own. Does she have any other evidence to suggest that Brian would have treated a man differently? It seems that Brian’s defence to this claim is obvious: it was the purchase of the drill and not her gender.
So, in summary, if Stella has been at Home Farm less than two years then her options seem very limited. Perhaps the real scandal in Ambridge should be that there is an employment lawyer providing some highly questionable advice!
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