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Does the Employer’s Breach Have to be the Main Cause of Resignation in a Constructive Dismissal Case?

A constructive dismissal occurs if an employee terminates an employment contract, with or without notice, because of the employer's fundamental breach of contract (a repudiatory breach). In Wright v North Ayrshire Council, the court had to decide on a claim for constructive dismissal. The key question was whether the contractual breach by the employer has to be the principal reason for the employee's resignation. It has now emerged that it does not.

Ms Wright complained that her employer, North Ayrshire Council, had fundamentally breached her contract because of its poor handling of three grievances she had brought against it. Two were not dealt with at all, and the Council did not respond to the third in time.

At the time of her resignation, Ms Wright was also finding it difficult to combine her caring responsibilities (she was caring for her partner who had suffered a stroke) with the demands of her work. As she had mixed motives for resigning, the original tribunal decided that case law meant it must determine the 'effective cause'. As the cause was the conflict between Ms Wright's caring duties and work, and not the employer's breaches, the tribunal concluded that she had not been constructively dismissed. Ms Wright appealed.

Upholding Ms Wright’s appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal said that it is sufficient that the repudiatory breach "played a part in the dismissal". The EAT said that the tribunal had taken the wrong approach. Case law has made it clear that courts should not search for one cause of resignation which predominates over others. The crucial question is whether the repudiatory breach played a part in the employee's decision to leave.

Once a repudiatory breach is established, if the employee leaves (even if this is for a number of other reasons) a constructive dismissal claim is possible if the repudiatory breach is one of the factors relied on. The tribunal in this case found serious contractual breaches by the employer; but because the effective cause of Ms Wright's resignation was her home/work conflict, it decided she was not constructively dismissed. This was an error of law.

The case was remitted to the same tribunal to determine whether the local authority's repudiatory breaches 'played a part' in Ms Wright's resignation.

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