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Courts can hear equal pay claims, Supreme Court rules

Firm has thousands of cases as deadline increases from six months to six years

24 October 2012

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Equal pay claims can be heard in the courts as well as at tribunals, the Supreme Court ruled this morning.

The judgment opens the way for thousands of female former council employees to bring claims under the Equal Pay Act 1970 dating back up to six years rather than six months, the deadline for employment tribunals.

Birmingham City Council failed to persuade the Court of Appeal to strike out the claims last year by a group of 174 women who worked as cooks, cleaners and catering staff and were denied the bonuses paid to men working at a similar grade, for example as bin men.

Chris Benson, partner at Leigh Day & Co, acts for the women. He said that the firm had a further 1,000 similar claims in Birmingham and thousands more elsewhere in the country.

“This is a great day for equality and for all those women massively underpaid over many years within public and private organisations,” Benson said.

“Birmingham Council should now do the decent thing and settle the claims. They saved money by underpaying ex-workers for so many years, and so should now stop wasting taxpayers’ money fighting court cases they cannot win.”

Giving the judgment of the majority in Birmingham City Council v Abdulla and others [2012] UKSC 47, Lord Wilson said a “striking feature” of the limitation period of six months set by section 2(4) of the Act was that parliament had never made it extendable.

He said that for “almost all of the many other claims” which could be made at tribunals, parliament prescribed limitation periods to which tribunals could extend.

“It is strongly arguable that parliament tolerated an unusually absolute time limit for the presentation to the tribunal of a claim under the Act only because it recognised that, were she to fall foul of that time limit, the claimant would nevertheless be likely to remain in time for making her claim in court.”

Lord Wilson said that in his view Birmingham “aspires in effect to rewrite” section 2(3) of the Act and introduce into a law a principle which would shorten the limitation period allowed by parliament.

Nevertheless, he said parliament “might well wish to consider” relaxing the usual limitation period for tribunal claims.

Lady Hale and Lord Reed agreed with Lord Wilson. Lords Sumption and Carnwath dissented.

Lord Sumption warned that equal pay claims were “by their nature liable to affect large classes of employees of a particular firm and may therefore have important financial implications for the employer, which will be particularly disruptive if they arise out of the position of ex-employees who left long ago”.

Madeleine Thomson, partner and head of employment law at Hamlins, said: “Sometimes employees do not realise that they have been victims of unequal pay until some time after their employment has ended, particularly so where the unequal pay in employment has led to poorer pension scheme contributions.”

Thomson went on: “There are real costs advantages to employees in bringing their claims in the county court since legal costs can more readily be recovered in the county court whereas normally they cannot be recovered in the employment tribunal.

“Equal pay claims are expensive and can run into tens of thousands of pounds. Next year, claimants will have to pay fees to issue equal pay claims in the employment tribunal and so will be more cost conscious about which forum they decide to bring their claims in.”

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Tribunals & Courts