News & Insights

Wheels coming off?

Christian Meredith reports on a recent high-profile sporting employment status case.

In a long running saga concerning a British cycling professional, the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) have recently held that a tribunal was correct in its finding that a professional cyclist was neither an employee nor a worker for the British Cycling Federation.

The case concerned Jessica Varnish who was a professional cyclist who was selected, in 2006, to join the British Cycling Federation’s (BCF) World Class Programme. Over the course of the relationship between Varnish and BCF numerous agreements were entered into, the last dated in November 2015.

The agreements expressly stated that they were not contracts of employment and there had been no intention to create an employment relationship between the parties. As part of the contract the BCF provided support to Varnish which included developing a performance plan and goals. This included coaching support, team clothing and equipment together with medical services, travel and accommodation expenses. Varnish, in return for these benefits, was to train hard with the intention of winning medals for the cycling team. She had to wear certain clothing, enter certain competitions, attend designated training camps and maintain certain levels of physical fitness and health.

In early 2016, the agreement was terminated for performance related issues and Varnish brough claims for unfair dismissal and discrimination along with other less significant claims.

In the first instance, the tribunal had to determine whether Varnish could bring such proceedings due to her employment status. The tribunal found that she was not an employee as Varnish did not receive remuneration from the BCF for the work she carried out so there was no mutuality of obligation. The tribunal concluded that the package of benefits did not amount to salary or remuneration and that the training the cyclist carried out before representing the British cycling team did not qualify as work. Varnish appealed.

The EAT dismissed the appeal agreeing that the obligations under the contract were not of the type that give rise to a contract of employment, there was no agreement to provide Varnish with work. The EAT also agreed that the benefits received were provided to her to enable her to train and compete at the highest level but were not remuneration for doing so using the analogy that tools given to a person to do a job cannot be that person’s pay for carrying it out. With regards to worker status the EAT found that the contract was for services provided to Varnish, not the other way around, and therefore the tribunal had found the correct conclusion.

Although this case might not be applicable to many businesses due to the unique circumstances, it is a reminder that employment status is an issue that shouldn’t be ignored and is worth setting this out clearly from the outset of the relationship between the parties.

Wheels coming off?