It can be dangerous for employers to overplay their hand in employment disputes, especially when attempting to make changes to contracts of employment. But that is pretty much what Jeremy Hunt did when he refused to sit down with the representatives of junior doctors and talk about his plans. Instead, he refused to negotiate ahead of last month’s strikes and chose to try and impose the changes unilaterally.

I said at the time that this wouldn’t be legal and that both parties should try to negotiate instead. This is from 7 April 2016, when Hunt shut the door on the doctors due to the planned strikes:

Put yourself in the doctors’ well-worn shoes for a moment.

If your employer tries to impose changes to your employment contract without your agreement, this is known as a ‘unilateral variation of contract’. The law in this area is complicated, but simply put, a change in the terms of your contract can only occur with your express or implied consent.*

Difficulties can arise when the proposed change is not to your benefit and requires your cooperation. Try as he might, Mr Hunt cannot literally force the doctors to attend work on extra days. So the employer generally needs to negotiate.

Then again on this blog on 17 April:

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We now know that on 5 May 2016, Hunt finally agreed to come back to the negotiating table, after rowing back on his plans to impose (rather than ‘phase-in’) the new contract. It only took thousands of non-urgent operations to be cancelled and the unthinkable sight of doctors walking out of A&E and urgent care departments for Hunt to change his mind and listen.
Here’s how some of those on Twitter responded.


Not the first time this government has done a u-turn. And I suspect it won’t be the last.

Posted by Ben Amunwa

Founder and editor of Ben is a commercial and public law barrister with The 36 Group. He gives expert legal advice on employment, public law and commercial disputes to a wide range of clients.

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