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Practice dilemma: Changing working hours

Like all legally binding contracts, the terms of an employment contract can only be altered if both parties agree to the changes. This makes it very difficult to enforce changes to employees' terms and conditions of employment.

In this instance, it would be beneficial for the practice to consult with the nurses, listening to their views and concerns. It's also essential to fully explain why there is the need for change within the practice. Hopefully at this stage, a compromise can be reached which suits both the practice and the staff who are against change.

If agreement cannot be reached, then the practice has various options open to them. They can impose the change upon the staff which could lead to a potential breach of contract claim. One of the nurses may also opt to leave their employment and raise a constructive dismissal claim (assuming they have over a year's service).

Another option available is to offer the nurses a new contract that reflects the revised working hours. However, to do this the practice must first terminate the original contract, giving the proper notice. The termination of the old contract would be regarded as a dismissal and therefore would be open for a claim of unfair dismissal.

When considering whether a dismissal has been fair, an employment tribunal would consider such aspects as the business reasons for change and the employee's reasons for objecting. It would also take into account the benefit to employer versus the adverse impact on the employee and whether a fair procedure had been followed.

Changing terms and conditions is clearly a contentious subject and any practices with such concerns should always seek legal advice before taking any action.

Liz Symon is an employment law adviser with the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland