Background

UK legislation provides that, when a UK employer proposes to make redundant 20 or more employees at one establishment within a period of 90 days or less, the employer is required to collectively consult representatives of those affected, prior to implementing that proposal. Failure to do so can lead to the employer being required to pay up to 90 days’ pay to each affected employee (a Protective Award).

In 2013, when considering the lawfulness of the collective redundancy process carried out by Woolworths in the throes of its closure, the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal caused havoc by deciding that the words “at one establishment” should be deleted from the legislation.

The deletion meant that, in order to avoid liability for a Protective Award, an employer proposing make 20 or more redundancies, anywhere in their UK business, within the relevant timeframe, needed to collectively consult about those proposals, no matter how geographically disparate and wholly unconnected the proposed dismissals might be.

Response

The Court of Appeal, thinking that this really could not be right, asked the European Court for a preliminary ruling on the issue.

The way the European system works is that an Advocate General (AG) first considers the question and then delivers his opinion. The European Court then uses the AG’s opinion to assist it in coming up with its Judgment. The European Court can disagree with the AG, but it usually follows the AG’s recommendation.

In this case, the AG decided that, in his opinion, the term “establishment” in UK legislation means the local employment unit to which the relevant workers are assigned to carry out their duties.

European Court Decision

On April 30, 2015, the European Court confirmed that the trigger for collective redundancy consultation is a situation where, within a 90 day period, an employer proposes to make 20 or more employees redundant at one establishment, as opposed to anywhere within its UK business, as had been suggested by the UK Employment Appeal Tribunal.

The court’s decision therefore narrows the instances in which employers will be required to collectively consult about proposed redundancies in the United Kingdom. The focus will now return to how many redundancies are proposed at each establishment within the UK business over the 90 day period. Whether or not a particular site or office qualifies as an establishment for collective redundancy purposes will be determined by the familiar tests used previously.