The case of Department for Transport v Sparks and others is a helpful reminder that just because a provision is contained in a policy, rather than the contract of employment itself, does not necessarily mean that it is non-contractual.

The facts

The Department for Transport wanted to unilaterally implement a new attendance management procedure which contained an earlier trigger point for disciplinary action than the 21 days' absence provided for in the existing procedure.

  • The attendance management procedure was contained in a staff handbook.
  • The part of the handbook with the provisions on ill-health stated that all of its terms which were apt for incorporation were to be incorporated into employees' contracts of employment.
  • The chapter on ill-health stated that it set out "your terms and conditions of employment relating to sick leave... and the management of poor attendance".

The employees claimed that this meant the current absence management procedure was a contractual term which could not be changed without their agreement.

The decision

The Court of Appeal agreed. The absence management procedure had been incorporated into the employees' contracts and, therefore, could not be changed unilaterally.

The court found that the Department for Transport had intended the staff handbook to be contractual. Although many sections were meant for guidance only, and therefore were not apt for incorporation, the provisions in relation to absence management were sufficiently clear and precise to be incorporated. The language of the introduction to the provisions pointed towards contractual status.

In practice

Whether the terms of an HR policy are contractual will depend on:

  • The wording of your policies and contracts;
  • Whether implied contractual rights have arisen (which will depend on the circumstances, for example, the policy terms and extent to which they have been followed in the past).

It is possible for a policy or handbook to be largely a matter of guidance and good practice but with specific provisions having contractual force.

Given the risks involved in amending a contractual policy or procedure unilaterally, employees' consent will be required to make any changes. This is something employers will usually want to avoid. To reduce the likelihood of policy terms having contractual status:

  • Include a clear statement at the beginning of the policy or procedure that it is non-contractual;
  • If the document is drafted specifically as management guidance - say so;
  • If possible, replace words like 'will' and 'must' with 'may';
  • Include a statement that the policy or procedure may be adjusted depending on the circumstances;
  • Include a unilateral right to vary the policy itself.

Workbox by Brodies 

It is important to regularly review your HR polices to reflect current best practice, changes in the workplace and new legislation or case law.

Template policies and guidance on amending policy terms can be accessed via Workbox at the pages on Policies and Employee Handbooks and Changing Terms and Conditions


Julie Keir

Practice Development Lawyer