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Staff handbook created enforceable employment rights

It is not uncommon for employees' contracts of employment to expressly incorporate the staff handbook, although much of its contents will refer to policy matters rather than having contractual status.

In an important decision for public sector workers (Department for Transport v Sparks and Others), the Court of Appeal has ruled that a clause in a staff handbook, relating to the policy of the Department for Transport (DfT) in respect of absences on sick leave, formed part of its employees' contracts.

The handbook, which was given to all new staff, stated that those employees who had more than 21 days off sick in any 12-month period would first be spoken to informally by management. However, if such absences persisted, disciplinary proceedings could result. The DfT subsequently sought to unilaterally change that position by reducing the trigger point from more than 21 days' sickness absence to just five days.

The DfT argued that the clause was merely a note for guidance or an indication of good practice. However, after an employee complained, a judge ruled that it constituted a legally enforceable contractual term which could not be changed without the consent of employees.

In dismissing the DfT's challenge to that decision, the Court found that the clause was a specific expression of its policy in respect of sickness management procedures. It was properly regarded as conferring a right on employees not to have the absence procedures invoked unless the 21-day triggering event had occurred.

It is vital to seek legal advice when drafting a staff handbook so that it is clear which provisions may be relied upon by employees as being contractual. We can advise you on your individual circumstances. 

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