A recent Employment Appeals Tribunal (EAT) decision has considered the meaning of exceptional circumstances in relation to extending the deadline for submitting a claim.
Under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977 – 2007 (the Acts) a claimant must submit a claim within six months beginning on the date of the dismissal or if the EAT or Rights Commissioner determine that there were exceptional circumstances preventing the lodging of the claim, then this time period may be extended to 12 months. The term exceptional circumstance is not however defined in the legislation. Guidance stems from EAT decisions as to what might qualify as exceptional circumstances.
In this case the EAT held that the claimant suffered significant medical problems which "prevented" her from submitting a claim within the prescribed timeframes. It was satisfied on the medical evidence presented that her medical problems were of "an exceptional degree" and "out of the ordinary". The EAT looked to the main authority in this area for guidance on what constitutes exceptional circumstances and noted that the following elements were involved:
- The words “exceptional circumstances” are strong words which should be contrasted with milder words / tests such as “reasonably practicable” or “reasonable cause” (which is the test in other situations / legislation). In this regard exceptional means out of the ordinary - “At least the circumstances must be unusual, probably quite unusual but not necessarily highly unusual”.
- In order to extend the time the EAT must be satisfied that the exceptional circumstances prevented the lodging of the claim within the general time limit. It is not sufficient if the exceptional circumstances caused or triggered the lodging of the claim.
- The exceptional circumstances must arise within the first six months following dismissal. If they arose later they could not be said to prevent the claim being lodged within the time.
To date the EAT has held that the following situations qualify as exceptional circumstances. Examples include:
- Illness – The EAT may extend the timeframe where the claimant is medically unable to lodge a claim within the 6 months. It would usually require medical evidence or at a minimum a medical cert. The Claimant’s evidence alone would be insufficient. This latest decision is further evidence of this point.
- Frustration of claimant’s intentions by their solicitor – The EAT held that the failure of a solicitor to lodge a claim within the 6 months amounts to exceptional circumstances and therefore allowed the extension. However, a contrary approach was taken in another case where the EAT refused to extend the time where the claimant’s solicitor had attempted to lodge the claim only a day beyond the 6 months. The fact that the claimant had issued earlier High Court proceedings regarding the dismissal may have influenced the EAT. This remains an area of uncertainty and is very much case specific as to whether an extension will be allowed.
Cases where the EAT held there were no exceptional circumstances include the following:
- Ignorance of the law, i.e. of a right of an unfair dismissal claim;
- Lack of awareness of a time limit; and
- No knowledge of a cause of action at the time.
In the absence of a statutory definition or an exhaustive list as to what might constitute exceptional circumstances, it is difficult to predict with certainty what circumstances will qualify. Ultimately it is determined by the EAT and it does so on a case by case basis in light of the specific facts.