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Landmark equal pay claim decided: are the floodgates now open?

Oct 24, 2012

Today the Supreme Court has handed down its decision in the case of Birmingham City Council v Abdulla.   The case relates to equal pay law, i.e the the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.   The principle was introduced to UK law in 1970 and (if you want some background) the story behind its introduction is told in the 2010 film "Made in Dagenham".   Why is the new decision important?   It means that employers could face more equal pay claims.  Previously the position was that disgruntled employees had six months in which to bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal.  The highest court in the UK has now decided that such claims can be brought in the Courts, for which there is a six year deadline. More time to take action will give workers more scope to come out of the woodwork and bring claims. [caption id="attachment_2655" align="alignright" width="261"]Cleaner Will employees in the private sector now clean up? The claimants in the Abdulla case included cooks, caterers, care staff and cleaners[/caption]   Should employers be concerned?   The vast majority of equal pay claims have always been brought by female public sector workers against local authorities.  This is because historically councils paid bonuses to male-dominated jobs which were not enjoyed by their female counterparts.  Most affected public sector workers submit their claims within six months anyway, since they benefit from the advice and guidance of the unions.   However both the public and private sector now need to be aware that they are more exposed if they unlawfully discriminate against female employees when it comes to pay, or they have done so in the past six years.   Another area of concern is that a successful claimant in the Courts can recover his or her legal costs from the other side. This is hardly ever the case in the Employment Tribunal.   Therefore an employer defeated in the Courts could be liable for damages, plus the legal fees of the employee, whereas previously damages were only ever a possibility. But this principle works both ways.  An employee who feels they have been subject to pay discrimination might think twice before claiming in the Courts, for fear of having to meet their employer's legal bill if they lose.   Also, the Courts are not used to dealing with equal pay claims whereas the Employment Tribunals have a wealth of experience.  Could this lead to satellite litigation over how they should be decided?  Only time will tell.   At the time of writing Birmingham Council said it was reviewing the decision and had made little comment. The decision will be sure to polarise opinion. At a time when the Government appears intent on removing the legal burden on businesses, the Supreme Court has paved the way for more claims. Whether or not the "floodgates" have been opened will remain to be seen.   If you would like advice on any aspect of HR or employment law, then please get in touch with one of our employment specialists on 020 7234 0200, contact@waterfront.law or via Twitter @uklaw.