Overseas employees

A decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) in March considers the extent to which a tribunal is entitled to hear a claim for unfair dismissal brought by a UK citizen working abroad.

Mr Lawson, a British man domiciled in England, worked as a security supervisor for Serco Ltd. Serco had its head office in the UK and was registered as a company in England and Wales. As a result of a contract between the company and the Royal Air Force, Mr Lawson carried out all his work for the company on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Mr Lawson brought a claim for constructive unfair dismissal to the employment tribunal in Watford on the basis that the company had forced him to work additional hours and his health had suffered, leaving him with no alternative but to resign. The tribunal decided that it did not have jurisdiction to hear his complaint and Mr Lawson appealed to the EAT.

The EAT found that the tribunal had been incorrect to use the law that governed Mr Lawson’s contract as the means of determining its jurisdiction. It held that the tribunal had therefore erred in deciding that it did not have jurisdiction to hear Mr Lawson’s complaint. The key factor was that Mr Lawson’s employer carried on business in England.

The secondary jurisdictional issue for the EAT was whether, even if the tribunal had jurisdiction, it should stay the proceedings in favour of the more appropriate and convenient forum of Ascension Island. The EAT found that because tribunals are creatures of statute, they do not have the power to stay proceedings in favour of a more convenient forum. Once jurisdiction has been established, a tribunal “cannot close its doors to parties who wish to appear before it.”

The EAT went on to consider what country’s law applied to Mr Lawson’s employment contract. The EAT held that once the jurisdiction of the employment tribunal has been established, the provisions relating to unfair dismissal in the Employment Rights Act and the Working Time Regulations apply.

It is not known whether leave to appeal was granted or requested to go to the Court of Appeal. However, until such time as this decision is overturned, it is authoritative as to the extent of the jurisdiction of tribunals and their power to stay proceedings in this context. Companies which are incorporated or carry on business in the UK but employ individuals to work overseas should be particularly mindful of their obligations under UK employment law in light of this decision.

Bulletins are for general guidance only. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters. Where reference is made to Court decisions facts referred to are those reported as found by the Court. Please note that past bulletins included in the Archive have not been updated by any subsequent changes in statute or case law.