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2 November 2012

Equal Pay claims in the High Court – November 2012

As has been widely reported in the media, the Supreme Court has recently  confirmed that equal pay claims can be heard in the civil courts. 

This case concerned a group of former Birmingham City Council employees, who pursued a claim for equal pay against their ex-employer.  Since the case was brought more than six months following the termination of their employment, the claim was out of time to be heard by an employment tribunal.  The claim was therefore brought in the High Court, which has a limitation period of six years.

Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal decided that the claims could proceed in the High Court, rejecting the Council’s application to have the claims struck out on the basis that the claims should be heard instead by an employment tribunal.

The Supreme Court has, by a majority, confirmed the decision of the lower courts, allowing such claims to be pursued in the High Court.  It has decided that the reasons for a claimant’s failure to bring a claim in time in the employment tribunal are not relevant in determining whether it is more convenient for the case to be heard in a tribunal.  To decide that the claimants’ case would be more conveniently heard by a tribunal would have the result of depriving them from justice, since the claim would be struck out for being out of time.

Comment

Employers will be concerned that this decision may have the effect of opening the floodgates to large volumes of equal pay claims from former employees. 

It is likely that the majority of any such claims will be pursued by individuals who, as in this case, are effectively ‘piggy-backing’ on equal pay claims already established by existing employees.  Claims pursued in the civil courts, in contrast to the employment tribunals, can prove very expensive and carry with them the risk of severe costs penalties for the losing party.  Any claimant will therefore need to be reasonably certain of a successful claim if they choose this route.

A copy of the Supreme Court’s decision is available here