Employment Solicitor Sarah Buxton looks at NHS associate contract disputes and the best way to overcome them…
Why have there been associate disputes?
At the start of the pandemic, when all practices had to shut their doors, we saw a sharp rise in the number of pay disputes between practices and associates. As we’re well aware, practices were forced to shut for three months and, for a time, many didn’t have money coming in, resulting in associates not being paid at the levels they were before the shutdown.
The British Dental Association did step in and managed to resolve a lot of the cases, but there are many that are still unresolved, and many ongoing disputes.
The best way to deal with disputes
We have been helping a lot of clients in these disputes, and there is one thing we say in all cases. Communication is key.
What we witness time and time again is that many of the problems arise from misunderstandings between the two parties; a lack of clarity around what should be paid and when is it going to be paid and, in most cases, the dispute comes from not having that initial conversation.
Nobody wants these disputes to end up in court, so my role in these situations inevitably is to try to resolve things before it escalates into court proceedings. There’s no doubt that resolving these disputes can be tricky as the information from the NHS can be very woolly, however, the aim should always be to try to resolve these things by talking, and to deal in the facts.
Sometimes we hear people quoting things they’ve read on forums online – things they believe to be true when, in fact, they are not.
Whilst communication is the first step in addressing the issue, if you do feel as though you’ve had a conversation but things aren’t getting resolved, and you’re not confident that there appears to be a way through it, then you need to take some advice from solicitors.
What associates can do
In the first instance, you should save yourself both money and time by making sure you have put something in writing to the practice owner.
We have a lot of people coming to see us and they haven’t approached the practice owner, so it is vitally important that you go and see them and have that initial conversation.
Not having that initial conversation is no good for either party. Many a thing can be addressed, and an appropriate solution sought, just by sitting down, talking and presenting the facts. Skipping this step makes it incredibly difficult to move the process forwards in a calm and cost-effective way.
I also think approaching the situation with a degree of realism is important – weighing up your options is a big part of this, and one of these considerations will be how much money is involved. I spoke with an associate recently where the money being withheld was £750, and, in that case, it isn’t worth going down the route of solicitors because you can’t guarantee the money is going to come back.
If you don’t feel after doing the initial recommended steps that you’re getting anywhere near to resolving the dispute and coming to some form of resolution, then associates do have the option of the small claims court, however, this option can be a rather stressful process.
So, from both points of view, the main piece of advice I can give is to try to work it out without escalating things to court, because it will cost time and money in the long run.
Sarah is an employment solicitor and director at FTA Law