Firms face greater hurdles when trainee contracts end

Law firms failing to implement new employment regulations correctly could see a rise in unfair dismissal claims from trainees who are not kept on upon qualification.

Under new statutory disciplinary and dismissal regulations which came into force on Friday (1 October), when an employee is dismissed a three-stage procedure must be followed by the employer. If not, the employee has an automatic case for an unfair dismissal claim – even if there is no disciplinary issue involved.

Trainees are affected as the regulations apply equally to the ending of fixed-term contracts, as well as dismissals on disciplinary grounds
and retirement. Although ‘contracts of apprenticeship’ are normally not included in fixed-term contracts, a Law Society spokesman confirmed that trainees are not considered as apprentices.

This means that law firms which choose not to retain a trainee at the end of their two-year training period must now follow the statutory guidelines. Last year a fifth of trainees in the UK’s top 50 law firms were not kept on at the firm where they trained, according to research by The Lawyer’s sister magazine Lawyer 2B.

Julie Cupit, HR manager for trainees at Herbert Smith, said the firm already essentially follows the procedure by holding a meeting, but with the onus being on the trainee to ask for feedback. She told The Lawyer that the firm was looking at ways to reverse that, while ensuring that the process remained as “informal” as possible for the trainees.

She said the end of a training contract is “a very difficult time” for a trainee, as they begin the contract expecting to be retained permanently at the end of the two years.

The statutory procedure, issued by the Department of Trade and Industry, led by Patricia Hewitt, involves the employer setting out the grounds for dismissal in writing and inviting the employee to a meeting to discuss the dismissal. The employee then has the right to appeal, which requires a second meeting. Firms will need to spend more money and time on ensuring the process is carried out correctly and fully.