Timothy Brennan QC and Peter Edwards successful in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has delivered judgment in Autoclenz Ltd v Belcher [2011] UKSC 41.

The individual workers, supported by their trade union Unite, successfully resisted the employer’s appeal against the decision of the Court of Appeal ([2009] EWCA Civ 1046).

Timothy Brennan QC and Peter Edwards represented the individual claimants.

Their clients were 20 individuals who were engaged as car valeters. The contractual documents which the individuals had signed expressly stated that they were independent contractors, that they could engage substitutes to carry out the work, that they had to provide and pay for their own cleaning materials and even that they were not obliged to provide their services at all. The Employment Tribunal had held that these documents did not represent the real contract.

On appeal, Autoclenz Ltd argued that the parties to a business relationship were ‘free to enter into agreements of their choosing’, and that the individuals had contracted on a basis which meant that they were neither employees nor within the wider concept of ‘worker’ for the purposes of the many statutory rights which depend on contractual status.

The Supreme Court (Lords Clarke, Hope, Walker, Collins and Wilson) held that, despite the attempt on the part of Autoclenz Ltd to prevent any protected status arising, the true terms of the contract were not as set out in the documents. The question in every case is: What was the true agreement between the parties? The contract of employment is not a commercial contract like any other. A purposive approach to the problem is appropriate. A court or tribunal should have regard to the relative bargaining power of the parties in deciding whether the terms of any written agreement in truth represent what was agreed. The true agreement will often have to be gleaned from all the circumstances of the case, of which the written agreement is only a part.

Timothy Brennan QC and Peter Edwards (instructed by Thompsons) appeared for the employees.

The Judgment can be viewed here.

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