There are generally strict time limits that apply when presenting a claim for unfair dismissal to the Employment Tribunal (ET). Normally, a claim must be lodged before the end of a three-month period beginning with the effective date of termination (EDT). However, where the ET judges that it was not ‘reasonably practicable’ for the complaint to be presented in time, the deadline can be extended.
In John Lewis Partnership v Charman, the ET held that, based on the individual facts of the case, it did have jurisdiction to hear Mr Charman’s unfair dismissal claim. He was ‘young and inexperienced’, knew nothing about employment law and his father, on whom he relied for advice, was unaware of the time limits that applied in such cases. In the ET’s view, Mr Charman’s ignorance of the time limits rendered it not reasonably practicable for him to present his claim before the end of the three-month period and he had presented his claim within a reasonable period thereafter.
Mr Charman had been summarily dismissed by John Lewis on 13 March 2010. On 28 June, he was sent a letter informing him that his internal appeal against the decision had been dismissed. By this time, Mr Charman was in Denmark on a month’s holiday and did not receive the letter until mid July, when a friend went to visit him in Copenhagen and took along his post. He then spoke with his father, who presented a claim on his behalf on 21 July. John Lewis contended that the claim was out of time as the time limit had expired on 12 June 2010.
John Lewis appealed against the ET’s ruling on the ground that the decision went against established case law, which provides that unless there are special facts that must be taken into consideration, the mere fact of a pending internal appeal is not sufficient by itself to justify a finding of fact that it was not reasonably practicable for a complaint to be presented within the time limit.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that ignorance of the time limits was clearly a relevant consideration and took as its starting point that if an employee is reasonably ignorant of the relevant time limits, it cannot be said to reasonably practicable for him to comply with them. The question then is, whether or not the ignorance is reasonable. In Mr Charman’s case, this depended on whether he should have made enquiries about how to bring a claim, which would have put him on notice as to the relevant time limits, immediately following his dismissal. On the facts in this case, the ET had formed the view that it was reasonable for Mr Charman and his father not to make such enquiries until the outcome of the internal appeal was known.
The question of reasonable practicability is a question of fact for the ET to determine. An ET’s finding of reasonableness will not be overturned unless it is perverse, which was not the case here. The EAT considered that it made good sense to await the outcome of an internal appeal before resorting to legal proceedings and upheld the ET’s decision that Mr Charman’s claim had been presented within a reasonable period once that outcome was known.
In the EAT’s view, the facts in this case meant that the ET was not bound to follow prevailing case law as this was concerned with whether pursuit of an internal appeal was itself sufficient to make it not reasonably practicable to present an unfair dismissal claim, whereas this case was concerned with whether or not it was reasonable for the applicant to be unaware of the time limits. This was not a case where the claimant had a skilled adviser.