For 30 years the principle that a dismissal takes effect when it is communicated to the employee has stood (Brown v Southall & Knight EAT 1980). The employer in the case of Gisda Cyf v Barratt  UKSC 41 went all the way to the Supreme Court in an attempt to change that position.
B was suspended from her employment following alleged inappropriate behaviour at a party. Following a disciplinary hearing held on 28 November 2006, the employer, G, told B that she would receive a letter on 30 November informing her of the outcome. A recorded delivery letter arrived at B’s home on 30 November informing her that she had been summarily dismissed for gross misconduct. B, who was away visiting her sister who had just given birth, did not read this letter until the morning of Monday, 4 December 2006.
B filed claims of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination which G said were out of time. It was necessary to establish the effective date of termination. B said it was when she read the letter. G said it was when the letter had arrived at B’s home.
The Supreme Court held that the effective date of termination of employment was the date on which B read the letter, rather than the date on which the letter arrived in the post.
The test to be applied is – when did the employee have a reasonable opportunity to find out they had been dismissed?
The employee’s behaviour should be considered in assessing whether the employee has had a reasonable opportunity to find out about the dismissal. In this case the employee had not deliberately avoided the issue and was away from home for a genuine reason.
What does this mean for employers?
This employee-friendly decision is an endorsement of the existing position. As such, it does not break new ground.
It is, however, a reminder to employers that, when they wish to communicate a decision to dismiss an employee without notice, they should be satisfied that the employee has actually received the message before they can consider the dismissal as having taken effect. This case confirms that the mere delivery of a letter will not by itself start the clock running for the purposes of the unfair dismissal time limit.
An employer may, therefore, not wish to rely on a letter as being the sole means of communicating the decision to dismiss, although it may provide a useful record of a decision already communicated directly to an employee, preferably in person.