Where an individual has been employed on a 12-month fixed-term contract to cover maternity leave, can the employer terminate the contract early if the woman on maternity leave decides to return early?

This will depend on whether or not the fixed-term contract contains provision for early termination prior to the 12-month point. If the fixed-term contract does contain provision for early termination (for example a right for the employer to terminate the employee's employment at any time during the fixed term on giving one week's or one month's notice), the employer will need to ensure that it complies with the notice provision.

Where, however, the fixed-term contract contains no provision for early termination, if the contract is terminated early by the employer, that will amount to a breach of contract and the employee will be able to seek damages equivalent to the unexpired portion of the fixed term. This could amount to a substantial claim if the fixed term still had a number of months to run before its expiry.