Employers face the prospect of battling discrimination claims years after an employee has left their company following a landmark Supreme Court ruling yesterday.
More than 170 women, who worked in low-paying jobs for Birmingham City Council and claim they were paid less than their male colleagues, won the right to have their discrimination case heard in the courts.
The ruling means historical equal-pay disputes can be heard in the civil courts and not just in employment tribunals, which only deal with cases brought within six months of someone leaving their job. The dispute has been rumbling on for more than three years. The women, who worked as cleaners, cooks, caterers and care staff, said they were excluded from bonuses that were handed to employees in traditionally male-dominated jobs such as refuse collection.
Between 2007 and 2008 Birmingham City Council paid out thousands of pounds to women bringing compensation claims, but only for those who did so within six months of leaving their jobs. Those who were left out of the original compensation claims took their case to the High Court, which has a much longer six-year time frame in which a claim can be brought.
Lawyers for Birmingham City Council argued that the case should be struck out because the civil court was not the correct jurisdiction to decide equal-pay claims. The High Court and later the Court of Appeal found in favour of the women. Birmingham took the case to the Supreme Court but lost yesterday after a 3-2 judgment in favour of the women.
The judges, led by Lord Wilson, ruled that while it would be more convenient for most cases to be dealt with in employment tribunals, the civil courts were still a suitable forum for cases that couldn't be heard in employment tribunals.
Joan Clulow, who worked for 25 years as a home help for Birmingham City Council, said she was upset that men had been paid more than her and her female colleagues when they had been working just as hard. "I'm angry at how they treated us for what we've done for them," the 71-year-old said after yesterday's ruling. "We've always been there for them and never refused."
The law firm Leigh Day & Co, which represents the women, described the judgment as "historic". In a statement, it said the ruling "effectively extends the time limit for equal-pay claims from six months to six years, the biggest change to equal pay legislation since it was introduced in 1970, with huge implications for thousands of workers".
The ruling could mean payouts for thousands of women at local authorities across the country who were paid less than their male colleagues.