Last week the Supreme Court ruled that when a summary dismissal is communicated by letter, the time limit for bringing an unfair dismissal claim does not start to run until the employee has actually read the letter, or has had a reasonable opportunity to do so. It rejected the argument mounted by the employer that the time would start to run when the letter would have been expected to come to the recipient’s attention – ie normally the day it arrives in the post.

In this case the employee was away from home on a Thursday when the letter arrived informing her that the outcome of her disciplinary hearing. She had gone to visit her sister who had just given birth. She did not get back home until late on Sunday, and her unfair dismissal claim would have been out of time if the effective date of termination (EDT) had already occurred by then. The Supreme Court has upheld the employment tribunal’s decision that the EDT was the following Monday, when it considered the claimant first had a reasonable opportunity to read the letter.

The Supreme Court was at pains to point out that the unfair dismissal regime was there to protect employees. Particularly given the short time limits within which these rights can be enforced, it thought it would be wrong if employees who had behaved reasonably could be penalised because of the application of strict rules of interpretation which might be appropriate in other areas of the law. Employers therefore need to communicate a decision to dismiss summarily to the employee in person if they want to be sure that the start of the three month time limit has been triggered. The same does not apply to dismissals on notice, because in that case the EDT falls on the date the notice expires.