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Employment Law: The last straw

The law on constructive dismissal has been under the spotlight recently. Sometimes, employees claim constructive dismissal because of a ‘last straw’ which pushes them over the edge. The courts have recently considered whether a fair disciplinary process – no matter what the outcome – can ever be that ‘last straw’.

Ms Kaur was a nurse with Leeds Teaching Hospitals. She received a final written warning for inappropriate behaviour, which included an altercation with another member of staff. She appealed. When her appeal failed, she resigned claiming constructive dismissal. Her claim was based on the whole process, including the altercation and the disciplinary proceedings. She claimed that the ‘last straw’ was her appeal being rejected.

The Court of Appeal reviewed and clarified the law on ‘last straw’ constructive dismissal cases. Where there is a course of conduct which creates a serious breach of contract, the most recent act can revive earlier affirmed breaches. If Mrs Kaur had accepted earlier breaches by not resigning at that point, a new breach of contract could revive them. Theoretically she could bring her constructive dismissal claim.

This case overrules the recent MacKenzie v Pets at Home case. It will be comforting for employers to know that Mrs Kaur’s case was struck out for having no reasonable prospects of success. The Court of Appeal confirmed that a fair disciplinary process can never form part of a serious breach of contract. As a result, the appeal decision could not be a ‘last straw’.

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