Compensation awards totalling pounds 20m have been made to about 2,400 women dismissed by the armed forces since 1978, with about 1,700 cases outstanding. Individuals have received payments of up to pounds 400,000.
The Employment Appeals Tribunal said it regarded many of the awards to be wrong in principle, but added that they could not be reduced because of a failure of the MoD to challenge the compensation fully in earlier hearings.
Ruling on seven test appeals brought by the MoD, Mr Justice Morison, said: 'The large awards, running into many tens of thousands of pounds, seem quite out of proportion to the wrong done.'
Issuing five guidelines on how compensation should be calculated, the judgment made it clear that industrial tribunals needed to look more carefully at whether the claimant would have returned to work. Mr Justice Morison urged members of industrial tribunals to keep a 'due sense of proportion' when assessing compensation. In particular, he said they had been wrong not to take into account the fact that 54 per cent of servicewomen did not return to work six months after giving birth. He said they should not have taken the women's word on their promotion prospects, and they should also have considered the effect cutbacks in the armed forces could have had on their careers.
Lawyers representing the women said they were concerned at the Tribunal's comments on the size of the awards, but believed the judgment gave no grounds for making lower compensation in the most serious cases.
Fewer than 5 per cent of about 100 industrial tribunal decisions have involved compensation of more than pounds 100,000, with the average payment being pounds 33,000, of which pounds 11,000 is accrued interest. For the majority of cases settled out of court the average payment is pounds 7,500.
David Lancaster, a Portsmouth solictor whose firm is handling 80 cases of women said the Tribunal's conclusions derived from a desire to reduce the money without regard to legal principles.
The Equal Opportunities Commission welcomed the guidelines which it said would speed up the resolution of outstanding claims.
Nichola Cannock, 38, a former RAF officer, was the only one of the seven women subject to the appeal to be at yesterday's hearing. She will keep the bulk of her pounds 173,000 award. 'No amount of compensation can make up for the fact that I lost my career as an engineering officer which I loved,' she said.
About 5,700 women were dismissed since a European directive made discrimination in the armed forces unlawful.
The Tribunal said it understood the anger of women who had remained in the services after deciding not to have children. 'Those who put their careers before all else now see their colleagues, who chose differently, receiving sometimes large awards, which the former might regard as unjustifiable windfalls. We accept they might feel a real sense of injustice.'
Nurse defends award, page 2Reuse content