Law Society risks claims over forced Christmas leave

Law Society staff have been clobbered with a special holiday treat from senior bosses – they are being forced to take annual leave between Christmas and New Year in a move lawyers speculate could be challenged in court.

The ornate London offices of the body representing solicitors in England and Wales have historically remained open between Christmas and New Year. But managers ruled earlier this year that it was uneconomic to keep the heating and lights on and decided to shut down.

But instead of allocating additional leave time, in a memo from mid-February this year, chief executive Des Hudson informed the 230-plus employees they would be forced to take the leave from their annual allocation.

It is understood the decision sparked anger among staff and union officials. Particularly galling, say sources close to Chancery Lane, was that management imposed the change after the closure of the annual opportunity for staff to “buy and sell” leave days for the forthcoming year.

Therefore, staff were unable to buy more holiday time to replace the three days they are being forced to take at the end of this year.

Employment specialist lawyers report that unilaterally changing leave arrangements around Christmas and New Year is one of the biggest legal traps snaring large employers. Forcing non-Christians and non-believers to take leave at what is still interpreted as a religious festival can spark discrimination claims.

Employers are legally allowed to build into employment contracts mandatory leave days. However, problems arise when bosses attempt to change existing contracts, as arguably Chancery Lane has done.

“The principle is that an employer cannot change unilaterally the terms of employment contracts,” commented Claire Dawson, an employment law partner at Slater & Gordon. “Contracts can only be varied after consultation and consent.”

Chancery Lane sources claim management alerted the Unite Union, which represents some society employees, but discussions were brief and objections around the timing were quickly dismissed.

Specialist lawyers point out that employers can seek to justify changes to employment contracts purely on financial grounds. However, explained Dawson, “good practice is to give notice well in advance after consultation before making the change. Normally that would be equivalent to the employee’s notice period, but with Christmas you have to think about what’s reasonable and the fact that people plan ahead. Ideally, with Christmas leave arrangements, that notice should be a year.”

In his February memo, Hudson told staff “everyone will be required to take the time as part of your annual leave allocation for the year …” He went on to claim “I wanted to let you know as early as possible, so you can plan your annual leave over the year”.

Senior managers also axed the tradition of giving staff Christmas Eve off as a “privilege day”. He told employees: “I know you are disappointed, but we need to think carefully about our spending and this decision is part of that.”

Disgruntling staff comes at a difficult time for Chancery Lane, with senior players recently losing a vote of confidence from the profession (17 December 2013). Criminal law specialists flooded the society’s headquarters last week for a special general meeting to debate the leadership’s handling of the Government’s proposed cuts to legal aid rates.

The meeting passed a no-confidence motion in both Des Hudson and the society’s titular head, president Nick Fluck.

A Law Society spokesman attributed the holiday move to the “low volume of activity and increasing number of staff choosing to take leave” between Christmas and New Year.

He acknowledged that management’s edict was “the subject of a query from union representatives in early 2013. It was made clear that this would affect only a small number of staff who would otherwise have elected to work in this period, and was within the terms of employment contracts”.

The spokesman also said that while the changes were formally announced in February, they had been “trailed” earlier.

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