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Tribunal slams university for 'arrogance and inadequacy' in landmark ruling

8 March 2007 | last updated: 14 December 2015

A University of Ulster lecturer whose fixed term contract was not renewed was unfairly dismissed and discriminated against, a Northern Ireland industrial tribunal has ruled. He is to receive compensation in excess of £36,000 for losses incurred.

The landmark decision, in a case backed by UCU and Thompsons McClure Solicitors, clarifies the employment rights of fixed-term workers.

The damning judgement of the tribunal describes the reasons given by the Human Resources Director, Ronnie Magee, for not following a proper redundancy procedure as 'simply breathtaking in their arrogance and inadequacy'.

The university claimed that Dr Andy Biggart, a lecturer in Social Policy and Sociology, had been fairly dismissed by being made redundant when his fixed-term contract came to an end when the School he was in had been facing financial problems. Dr Biggart had been employed initially on a five year fixed-term contract that was twice extended to enable him to finish his funded research.

When the contract finally ended in February 2005 he was not offered alternative employment even though the university was recruiting new sociology staff, albeit within a different School at another of the university's campuses. When he was unsuccessful in a job application, no effort was made by the university to re-deploy him.

The tribunal ruled that the university did not have any procedure for properly consulting with trade unions on the impending expiry of fixed-term contracts and was wrong in its assertion that to re-deploy Dr Biggart would have been in breach of the Equality Commission's Code of Practice on Recruitment and Selection, which it claimed required it to advertise all permanent posts externally.

This, the tribunal said, took the commission's code 'to its extreme and in contradiction of the rights of existing employees not to be dismissed for redundancy where there is suitable alternative employment available'.

Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said: 'This ruling sends a clear message to universities that they cannot continue to treat academic staff on fixed-term contracts so shabbily. Casualisation in our universities is sometimes invisible to the public and to students but it is the unacceptable underbelly of higher education. This ruling, coupled with new fixed-term legislation, means universities who try to exploit their staff will not get away with it.'

Dr Biggart said: 'Although I feel the extent of discrimination that I experienced was simply appalling, what disappointed me most was, in spite of my own attempts to appeal this decision internally, the university refused to engage with me and to see this through due process. This left me little choice but to take my case to tribunal. I am also aware that the sort of treatment that I experienced was not an isolated case and I now hope, for the sake of my former colleagues, that the university will acknowledge the need to develop and apply a fair and transparent robust set of policies and procedures.'

John O'Neill, Dr Biggart's lawyer at Thompsons McClure Belfast, said: 'This ruling is critical because it sends the message to universities and other employers that they must generally treat fixed-term workers equally with permanent staff in any redundancy situation. The failure of the university to discuss and consult with Dr Biggart over his options when his contract came to an end, and also to allow him a proper right of appeal against his dismissal was a disgrace and an act of discrimination against him because of his fixed-term worker status'

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