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Trainee solicitor wins employment tribunal case before starting work

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Trainee solicitor wins employment tribunal case before starting work

In Osvald v Holden and Co LLP a trainee solicitor has succeeded in a breach of contract claim against his new employer after they changed the terms of his contract a few days before he started his employment with them.

Here, Chris Dobbs looks at what happened in this case and the tribunal’s decision.

What was the claim?

Mr Osvald claimed breach of contract after the law firm who had just recruited him told him he would be required to work at offices other than the one he had been told he would be working at, namely the Hastings office.

What happened?

Mr Osvald had completed his law degree back in 2013, but put his legal career on hold when he had childcare responsibilities. 

He then applied for a training contract with Holden and Co in 2021 and was asked along to an interview.

During the process, he met with the firm’s principal and the Tribunal found, on hearing the evidence, that terms of the contract were discussed and agreed. 

These included Mr Osvald’s job role, salary, hours, the date his employment would commence and, importantly, his office location.  Emails were then exchanged which confirmed these, as well as providing him with a parking space and covering exam fees.

The written contract of employment

Everything was going well until Mr Osvald received a written contract of employment just four days before he was due to start his employment.  The contract said he could be asked to work at other locations, including the firm’s Ashford office in Kent. 

Mr Osvald contacted the firm to say he could only work in the Hastings office, due to his child caring responsibilities.  He was told it was essential he was available to go and work at the Ashford office. 

As a result, Mr Osvald never started work, returning keys he had already been provided to the firm the day before his start date.

What were the issues to be decided by the Tribunal?

Was a contract formed by the discussion with the principal and subsequent exchange of emails prior to the written contract being provided four days before the start date? If so, was there a breach of that contract and/or a breach of trust and confidence?  If yes, what should Mr Osvald be awarded?

What was the Tribunal’s decision?

The tribunal decided a contract had been formed by the discussion and emails prior to the written contract being provided.

The essential elements of a contract – offer, acceptance, consideration and the intention to create legal relations – were all satisfied.  There had been a clear offer of terms, which Mr Osvald had accepted, and the consideration was the job offer.

The firm had then breached the contract by changing, albeit by the possibility of it occasionally happening, the place of work without Mr Osvald’s consent. 

It had been agreed when he accepted the job that he would work in the Hastings office, and the late change to asking him to be available to work at Ashurst, without his agreement, was a breach of that agreement.

Was the claim successful?

Therefore, Mr Osvald was successful with his claim.  As the firm could end the contract by providing either reasonable or contractual notice, Mr Osvald was awarded four weeks pay, amounting to £1,354.

An Employment Solicitor’s View

Chris Dobbs says: “While the amount of the award in this case is relatively small, the legal principle is an important one. 

Employers must be wary that discussions and, what can be deemed to be informal written statements, such as emails, can create a legally binding agreement. 

This can be the case even before any employment starts.  The respondent in this case learnt a painful lesson, having to pay out to someone who never did a single day’s work for them.”

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