Pimlico Plumbers Court Case: A Year On

Today, we’re discussing the complex and protracted Pimlico Plumbers court case, involving the business’ founder Charlie Mullins, and the company itself. Can you give us some background, Nick, from your perspective?

Certainly. The Pimlico Plumbers court case has been one of the most lengthy legal battles I can recall. The original employment tribunal was heard in August 2011, and the case moved back and forth in court seven times from 2011 until the final judgment in 2022.

To summarise, the Pimlico case centred on the worker status of Gary Smith, a plumber who claimed he was a worker during his time at Pimlico, thus entitled to paid holiday for the duration of his employment from 2005 to 2011. This case is frequently brought up during trade shows and discussions with potential clients or sub-contractors due to its implications. Notably, Charlie Mullins gained considerable publicity from it, regardless of the case outcomes.

Despite the 11 years of court proceedings, the case remains a topic of keen interest, especially in the field of employment status. The original Employment Tribunal ruled in favour of Pimlico Plumbers, deeming the contract to have established Mr. Smith as self-employed. However, unions supported Smith during the appeals process. The case was escalated to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, where the initial ruling was overturned. It reached the Supreme Court in 2017, and there were two significant take-outs from the judgement, namely: that the contract must accurately reflect the parties’ intentions and the actual manner of work, and merely labelling a contract as self-employed engagement doesn’t change its inherent nature.

The Supreme Court offered detailed guidance on employment status, which has been invaluable. The case was sent back to the Employment Tribunal to determine how much holiday pay Mr. Smith was owed. The Employment Tribunal initially found Mr. Smith’s claim to be out of time, but subsequent appeals, including one in the Appeal Court in 2021 with a judgment in 2022, clarified the law around the right to paid holiday. The outcome emphasised the importance of contract authenticity and the right of individuals to claim unpaid holiday pay retrospectively.

From Charlie Mullins’ perspective, what was his argument regarding the employment status in the Pimlico Plumbers Court Case?

Mullins’ argument (or at least the one propagated by his lawyers in court) was that the contract terms clearly established the plumbers as independent businesses providing services to him. However, the restrictive nature of the contract and the degree of control exerted by Pimlico indicated an employment relationship. Mullins had depended on the contract’s wording, but it did not accurately reflect the day to day relationship between the company and Mr Smith.

Regarding holiday pay, Mullins relied on the Working Time Directive, which had previously suggested that claims for unpaid holiday must be made within three months of the holiday year’s end. The Appeal Court revised this interpretation, stating that due to the right to paid holiday being fundamental, claims could be made beyond the three-month limit.

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Why is the Pimlico Plumbers court case still relevant in 2023?

Its lasting relevance lies in the ramifications for other businesses, particularly since the Court of Appeal’s decision on backdating holiday pay will influence future employment tribunal cases.

How should Charlie Mullins have managed the contracts initially?

I think it would be a bit presumptuous of me to advise a successful man like Charlie Mullins on how to run his business! However, the contract he used did not mirror the working relationship he desired with his plumbers. A contract crafted by employment status experts, particularly for the construction industry, would have been preferable. The issue with Mullins’ contract was that although it purported to reflect a business to business relationship, in reality it established an employment relationship – albeit with a different title

Was the issue also about exclusivity?

One of them, yes, the contract stipulated that working for others would result in dismissal from Pimlico, and it imposed stringent control over the plumbers’ work, which the Supreme Court considered indicative of an employment relationship..

Are other subcontractors considering claiming holiday pay retroactively now?

It’s unclear how many are aware of the Appeal Court’s ruling. Current economic conditions and the availability of tradesmen mean there aren’t many grievances, but this may change if the construction industry nears recession and disputes arise, potentially leading to more employment tribunal cases.

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Nick Pilgrim

M.D. | CIS Payroll Expert
01245 493832

Nick loves nothing more than chewing the fat over CIS payroll queries – actually that’s not strictly true; he likes playing golf and driving round Europe, but pick up the phone to him anyway!

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