The Court of Appeal decided on Monday that legislation requiring employees to work for an organisation for two years before qualifying for employment rights, discriminated against women and was a breach of European equality law.
The judgment, which refers to the case of two north London secretaries, applies to women who were sacked between 1985 and 1991 and who worked between one and two years for a single employer. Lord Tebbit increased the qualifying period for employment rights from one to two years in 1985, when he was Secretary of State for Employment.
Alan Lakin, chief legal adviser to the Equal Opportunities Commission, said yesterday that although the ruling only applied to a specific period, it "greatly improved" the chances of winning compensation for women who had been dismissed since 1991. The three judges decided on the 1991 cut-off because that was when the secretaries were sacked.
Camden Law Centre in north London, which backed the case, argued that while the two-year limit disqualified a quarter of men from claiming unfair dismissal, it eliminated a third of female workers.
Gay Moon, a solicitor at the centre, said she embarked on the litigation because of the number of women complaining of dismissal in "unsatisfactory" circumstances. "Some of them were dismissed without notice, some had doors shut in their face. Women tend to have a shorter span in their jobs because they often fulfil the function of carers."
Ms Moon took the case on behalf of Nicole Seymour-Smith and Laura Perez who were sacked in 1991 after 15 months in their jobs. Industrial tribunals rejected their cases for unfair dismissal because they had been working for their respective employers for less than two years. In 1992, they went to the High Court, arguing that the two-year period breached a 1972 European directive on equal treatment, but the court ruled against them.
An official at the Department of Trade and Industry said yesterday that ministers were still considering the 50-page judgment and deciding whether to take the case to the Lords, but it was likely an appeal would be mounted.
The official said: "The Government won its case in the Divisional Court and naturally we are surprised that the Court of Appeal appears not to have accepted our arguments ... We have never considered the two-year qualifying period to be discriminatory. On the contrary, we consider that it strikes the correct balance between the rights of employees and the burdens of business."
While the Government argued that the two-year rule helped create employment opportunities, Lord Justice Neill at the Court of Appeal said ministers had failed to prove that more jobs were on offer as a consequence. However, the court gave the Government leave to appeal to the House of Lords, agreeing that the case raised issues of "general public importance".Reuse content