Say what you mean, and mean what you say

28 May 2012

When you mean what you say, are you saying what you mean? As the Mad Hatter told Alice, the two are not the same at all. Businesses need to be careful when drawing up routine documents like contracts of employment to ensure that key words are clearly defined in the document itself, otherwise the courts may apply a meaning from normal modern usage that has a different outcome. This is the message of two cases that have come before the Court of Appeal over the last few weeks. In Owens v Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council, Beverley Owens was a qualified teacher who was employed to help special needs children to deal with their behavioural and emotional difficulties. Her contract of employment described her as a 'specialist teacher counsellor' but because she did not teach in a classroom, the Council transferred her from the Teachers' Pension Scheme to the less generous Local Government Pension Scheme. When Ms Owens objected to this, the matter went all the way to the Court of Appeal. Because the word 'teacher' was not defined in the Teachers' Pension Scheme rules, the judges looked to the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition of the word. They decided that the words teach and teacher were not limited to teaching in a classroom and that the activities undertaken by Beverley Owens fell within the dictionary meaning of the word and that she was entitled to be reinstated in the Teachers' Pension Scheme. The meaning of a single word was equally important in R v Taylor where businessman Mr Taylor had been convicted in the Crown Court of falsifying his company's books or papers, which is an offence under section 206 of the Insolvency Act 1986. The records that he had falsified were kept on computer and he appealed against his conviction on the basis that the company's computer records were not 'books and papers' within the meaning of section 206. The judges agreed that computer records were not paper, but held that the records could be described as 'books'. They said that the expression books and paper should be given a practical meaning in line with present-day usage and practice, and that it would not be inconsistent to say that a company's books were kept on computer. Said employment law expert Alex Dean of Gepp & Sons, Solicitors in Chelmsford : "These cases give a strong message that the courts will not feel that they are restricted to a narrow, literal interpretation of words and phrases when interpreting documents and acts of Parliament. By adopting an up to date practical approach to language, the law will change and adapt as the language evolves. "It certainly emphasises that businesses need to be careful when drawing up routine documents like contracts of employment. If a key word or phrase is given a certain meaning, then it's crucial that the meaning is expressly defined in the document itself." • For additional information please contact: Alexandra Dean of Gepp & Sons. The above is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.