Atkins v Coyle Personnel plc

Section 99 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 states that it is automatically unfair to dismiss an employee for taking statutory paternity leave if the reason or principal reason is “connected with” the leave. In Atkins v Coyle Personnel plc (IDS 850), the Employment Appeal Tribunal said that the reason has to be causally connected to the dismissal and not just associated with it.

Basic facts

Mr Atkins arranged with his manager, Mr Stewart, to go on a week’s paternity leave when his partner was admitted to hospital on 6 March 2006. A more senior manager, Mr Edwards, was not told of the arrangement.

Mr Atkins e-mailed both Mr Stewart and Mr Edwards on 7 March to inform them of the birth of his daughter. Mr Edwards agreed to the paternity leave arrangement, but only if Mr Atkins was always contactable by phone.

Having done some work on both 8 and 9 March for the company, Mr Atkins was asleep when Mr Edwards rang for the first time on 10 March. He then asked a colleague to ring Mr Atkins again because he was concerned that Mr Atkins might lose out on some commission if he did not attend to the matter.

This prompted an angry e-mail from Mr Atkins who said he had only had three hours’ sleep and was being pushed too far. Mr Edwards was annoyed as he felt he had been trying to do Mr Atkins a favour. They then had a heated argument during which Mr Edwards told Mr Atkins he was sacked.

Mr Atkins brought a claim of automatically unfair dismissal.

Tribunal decision

The tribunal said that although the dismissal took place during Mr Atkins’ paternity leave, it had to decide whether or not that was the principal reason for his dismissal.

It accepted that Mr Edwards was annoyed at not being told of Mr Atkins’ arrangements initially, but that he had not opposed the leave itself. It concluded that the reason for his dismissal was nothing to do with the fact that Mr Atkins had taken paternity leave, but because of “frustration on the part of Mr Edwards which grew during the heated argument between him and the Claimant following the Claimant’s e-mail on 10 March. “

Mr Atkins appealed on the basis that the tribunal had misinterpreted section 99, saying that it just required the dismissal to be “connected with” or “associated with” and not “caused by” the leave.

EAT decision

The EAT, however, disagreed. It accepted the company’s argument that as Mr Atkins had not argued this “connection” point before the tribunal, he could not raise it as a new point at appeal and he therefore could not succeed.

Nevertheless, it went on to confirm that the tribunal had applied the correct test. It said that “connected with” must involve a causal connection between the prohibited reason and the dismissal.

“The fact that the words ‘connected with’ might on the dictionary definition be taken to mean ‘associated with’ does not mean that a causal connection is not necessary between the dismissal and the paternity leave. ‘Associated with’ … is a very vague concept, so wide and vague that it could on its face include a simple time connection, in other words it would be enough merely because the employee was on paternity leave at the time he was dismissed. Such an interpretation cannot have been intended …”

It concluded that the tribunal was right to decide that the reason or principal reason for dismissal was because Mr Edwards was frustrated and annoyed with Mr Atkins. This had little or nothing to do with the fact that Mr Atkins was on paternity leave.

Comment

The EAT has taken a relatively narrow interpretation of the law, saying that what is required is a causal connection between the dismissal and the paternity leave. It is not enough for the dismissal to be associated with paternity leave, nor that it would not have occurred ‘but for’ the paternity leave. This seems sensible as otherwise employers could never dismiss an employee on paternity leave. However, the EAT does not say how much of a causal connection there needs to be between the taking of paternity leave and the dismissal. Paternity leave cases are few and far between and it is unlikely that there will be a change to this interpretation in the near future.