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GPs must take careful heed of the changes

to employment law coming into force next month, says solicitor Daphne Robertson

On October 1 new disciplinary and grievance procedures1 will come into force, constituting a fundamental change to UK employment law. GP employers beware!

While large organisations with sophisticated human resources departments will have applied considerable resources to ensure their staff contracts and procedures will be au fait with the new regulations, smaller businesses such as GP practices may not have had the time or personnel to carry out these tasks. Worse still they may not even be aware of the potential risks of failing to address the new rules.

Failing to comply with the new procedures can result in a dismissal becoming automatically unfair – and the maximum compensatory award for unfair dismissal is £55,000! In addition, a tribunal can increase any compensatory award to the employee by 10-50 per cent if the employer fails to follow the statutory disciplinary procedure.

From a practice perspective, compliance with UK employment law is now a relevant factor in achieving the target points under the quality and outcomes framework.

The ethos behind the changes is that a large proportion of complaints to the employment tribunal involve employers who do not have disciplinary procedures and employees who do not have recourse to grievance procedures.

After October 1 there will be two procedures for disciplinary and grievance situations – a 'standard' and a 'modified' procedure. The standard disciplinary procedure – a three-step process – will apply to situations where an employer is contemplating either dismissing an employee or taking relevant disciplinary action.

The rules are complex. Relevant disciplinary action will not include oral or written warnings or suspension on full pay. The modified procedure – a two-step process – will apply mainly to gross misconduct situations where the employee is summarily dismissed.

In relation to grievance situations, the standard procedure will apply where an employee has a grievance that could give rise to a statutory employment claim. This would include such things as unfair dismissal, sex discrimination and so on. The modified procedure will apply where an employee wishes to raise a grievance after the termination of employment.

There are a number of circumstances in which the statutory procedures do not apply, but this does not mean employers are absolved of any liability. You must remember that the new rules are procedural. Even if a practice followed the new procedures to the letter – or did not have to because it was an excluded case – that practice could still face liability for unfair dismissal if the dismissal was not fair in all the circumstances.

October 1 is only just around the corner but there is still time to ensure you are adequately prepared. First, allocate responsibility for the issue to someone within the practice. This may be the practice manager or partner responsible for HR.

Second, conduct a review of your current contracts and procedures. These will inevitably require updating. The new procedures apply to many types of dismissal and so the review will need to cover all policies and procedures – whistleblowing, redundancy, poor performance.

Third, put together a management reference guide for handling disciplinary and grievance procedures. Handling these situations can be a difficult enough experience without the complexity of the new rules. It is therefore essential that those who will be dealing with disciplinary and grievance issues are confident of the rules and procedures that they must apply.

Important steps to take now

•Familiarise yourself with the new regulations

•Allocate responsibility for the issue to someone within the practice

•Conduct a review of your current contracts and procedures

•Update your contracts and procedures where necessary

•Put together a management reference guide for handling disciplinary and grievance procedures

Reference

1 Statutory disciplinary and grievance procedures laid down in the Employment Act 2002 and the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations 2004

Daphne Robertson is founding principal of DR Solicitors, London

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