10th March 1995 at 00:00
The difficulty in determining whether a part-time contract is for a fixed period or not was highlighted in Wiltshire County Council v NATFHE and Guy (1980). Ms Guy, who taught part-time in a college, had habitually been re-appointed each year for the next academic session. Sometimes she did not work for the whole of the session because the principal decided that a particular course was undersubscribed or insufficiently well attended, and curtailed the course.

When her contract was not renewed she complained of unfair dismissal. Wiltshire suggested that she had not been "dismissed" for the purposes of the Employment Protection Act 1978, as the contract was for a fixed term which could expire before the end of the session by decree of the principal. The Court of Appeal decided that the contract was indeed for a fixed term, but even though her work might end beforehand, the contract continued until the end of the session. In that case there was a technical dismissal.

However, the Court also pointed out that this decision was reached on the interpretation of this particular contract. In an important distinction, it said that if Ms Guy had been employed under a contract to teach for an uncertain length of time, with her employment ceasing when the courses ceased, it would not have been a fixed-term contract. A fixed-term contract is one which has a defined beginning and end.

More recent cases have indicated that where a number of such uncertain term contracts have been agreed end-on, then under discrimination laws they might be deemed discriminatory since there are more part-time women lecturers who could be affected. To succeed, employees would have to claim unfair dismissal on the grounds of discrimination and each case would have to go to a tribunal. It would be helpful all round if this area of employment law was made more certain.

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