Case: Smith v Glasgow City District Council [1987] ICR 796

by Gina Skandari, Student Lawyer

Gina Skandari

Mr Smith worked at Glasgow City Council as a deputy General Manager in the Building and Works Department. The director of this department resigned but his post remained vacant; Mr Smith took over his duties alongside his own until someone else was allocated as Director. Then, Mr Smith resumed his post as General Manager. Unfortunately, Mr Smith was dismissed by Glasgow City Council and was given three reasons:

  1. For his conduct in expanding the workforce;
  2. His failure to adequately respond to legitimate requests for information;
  3. And failing to obtain a written confirmation of instructions prior to expanding the programme of expenditure and recruitment.

Mr Smith felt that the dismissal was unfair and contravened the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which governed employment law at the time (now it is the Employment Rights Act 1996). For an unfair dismissal claim to be successful, it must be found that the dismissal fell short of what was expected by law. The Industrial Relations Actstated that where multiple reasons of dismissal are given, a principle reason must be clearly stated. In Mr Smith’s case three reasons were given without one being identified as the main reason. This became a landmark case in relation to unfair dismissal law.

Mr Smith took his case to the Employment Tribunal, where it was held that the second reason, failing to adequately respond to legitimate requests for information, was wrongfully taken into consideration but that the dismissal was fair. Unsatisfied with this outcome, Mr Smith appealed his case to the Employment Appeal Tribunal where they assumed that the second reason given appeared to be the main reason for the dismissal, and also concluded that the dismissal was fair. Still unsatisfied with this result, Mr Smith took his case to the House of Lords where Lord Mackay of Clashfern gave the lead judgement.

Lord Mackay said that the dismissal was unfair and identified legal faults in the way Glasgow City Council handled the dismissal and with the way the judges concluded the appeal. He said that Glasgow City Council failed to give a reasonably sufficient reason for dismissal and did not identify which of the three reasons given was the main reason for dismissing Mr Smith. The Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal ought to have come to this conclusion, but failed to, he said. Lord Mackay stated that the Employment Tribunal was not within their powers to assume the main reason for the employer’s dismissal and in doing so they had made a mistake. He therefore stated that Glasgow City Council had to pay Mr Smith’s costs and reimburse him for unfairly dismissing him.

This case has been very important in enhancing employee’s rights; it restores the balance of powers between an employer and an employee. It ensures that employees are not so readily disposable; employers have to carefully consider the reasons they are relying on when dismissing someone. Where the employer gives multiple reasons it is important to clarify which is the main reason for dismissal and this must be put in writing.

Fast-forward to employment law today: there are strict requirements when dismissing someone. Fair reasons for dismissal are found within the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the procedure is contained within ACAS’s Code of Practice. This ensures that both employers and employees know the rights and responsibilities attached to each party. Dismissals must therefore be confirmed in writing. Therefore employers can give multiple reasons for dismissal, as long as they make clear what the main reason is and put it in writing.

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