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  • Author or Editor: Eleanor Kirk x
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Following the examination of the legal context of employment disputes in Nicole Busby’s chapter, I explore in this chapter two key questions: how do people think about the law in relation to problems at work, or disputes with their employers, and how do advisers transform or augment these notions into action or inaction in relation to employment disputes?

In the context of the proliferation of individual employment rights and changes to the nature of workplace organisation and occupational structure, Citizens Advice Bureaux are increasingly becoming providers of employment advice – to the extent that they have been described as a new actor in employment relations, partly filling the void left by the decline of trade unions (Abbott, 1998). Bureaux offer information and advice regarding employment law, and assistance in enforcing the law via the employment tribunal system.

As described in Adam Sales’s chapter, clients bring with them varying degrees of prior understanding and expectations which advisers seek to either validate and elaborate upon, modify or transform. Clients’ notions of their employment rights are not always accurate, and as well as assisting in furthering disputes, advisers may sometimes also close them down. In the context of recent changes to employment law, such as the weakening of unfair dismissal protection and the imposition of fees for tribunals, advisers are increasingly the bearers of bad news to their clients regarding available legal options. I consider in this chapter the sometimes divergent perspectives of clients and advisers regarding justice and legal remedies, and how advisers seek to manage expectations.

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Laura worked for a retail company for six years before she was suspended over an alleged incident which she denied, providing evidence to support her innocence. However, when she learned that there was a fee to be paid for submitting a claim, and for holding a hearing, this was a ‘gamble’ she felt unable to take. Laura worked in a large supermarket chain for more than six years. A store security guard filmed Laura on CCTV going to her car during her break. He claimed she was taking illegal drugs. Laura states that she was taking a hay fever remedy. After returning to work from being in her car, Laura was approached by a manager and informed that she was suspended. She asked the reason for this and was told it was due to the incident that happened earlier in the evening. At the time, Laura did not know what incident was being referred to. The next day she received a letter from her employer informing her that she had been suspended because she was working under the influence of illegal drugs. Laura vehemently denied she had been taking illegal drugs. She contacted her employer and offered to have a drug test taken immediately, as it was still within the appropriate time period that would make this valid. The employer declined her offer. Laura then had her own test taken, which showed that she had not been under the influence of illegal drugs. Laura had a disciplinary meeting.

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Brian had help from a CAB solicitor preparing his claim of constructive dismissal against his employer. However, having to represent himself at hearing was an enormous strain, especially given his limited education, severe dyslexia and the stress he was already suffering as a result of the nature of the dispute.

Brian, a man in his early 40s, had worked as a car valet in a car sales yard for more than eight years. During this time, he claimed to have experienced verbal abuse from his immediate manager, the son of the owner. Brian had talked with the owner about the abuse on a number of occasions. This would improve the situation temporarily, but the bullying would resume shortly thereafter. When Brian attended a hospital appointment his manager phoned him, swearing at him and demanding he return to work. Brian collapsed shortly afterwards and was advised by a nurse not to go back to work. Brian resigned from his job. Initially Brian did not intend to seek legal redress for the way he had been treated at work and began looking for new work. After some reflection, Brian felt that his boss should not be able to get away with forcing him to leave a job that he loved. His wife encouraged Brian to contact Acas, whose representative suggested that he see a solicitor. Brian attended a free initial appointment with a solicitor who told him to submit a grievance letter to his employer and that further free legal information could be obtained from a solicitor at the CAB. Brian had a Gateway interview.

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This chapter explores the relationship between industrial relations and labour law, subjects that have developed in silos to some extent in more recent decades but that clearly have a great deal to offer each other given their common focus on industrial justice and mobilization in relation to law and the legal and regulatory system, and the empirical contribution of industrial relations to a more contextualized, sociological or socio-legal understanding of law in relation to work and employment. The chapter highlights the importance of the interplay of social norms with formal legal norms, the interaction of workers with society at large and its political and legal institutions, and particular country-, locality- or industry-specific institutional contexts. The call for the ‘recovery of a shared tradition’ highlights these interrelationships and the subsequent scope for shared agendas in the future.

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