Thousands of UK employers could be forced to review their pay schemes following a landmark ruling by Europe's top court, it emerged today.
The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that length of service was an acceptable basis on which to decide how much an employee should be paid.
In what was described by trade union Prospect as the most important sex discrimination judgment for 10 years, the court added that experience was a key factor in deciding salaries.
It said that, where pay was based on length of service, there was no need for an employer to justify a person's salary unless he or she could provide evidence "capable of raising serious doubts in that regard".
The ruling is expected to hit the public sector hardest, where wide differences in the salaries paid to staff for the same length of service are reportedly much more common than in the private sector.
The ruling was made in the case of Bernadette Cadman, a principal Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector.
She took her case to an employment tribunal five years ago after discovering that male colleagues in the same grade were earning between £5,000 to £9,000 more.
Ms Cadman, who was backed by the Equal Opportunities Commission, argued that a difference of £9,000 for male colleagues based on length of service amounted to sex discrimination because women were more likely to have career breaks to have children.
A court of appeal reportedly referred her case to the European Court of Justice for a ruling because of doubts over its implication.
In giving its ruling, the European court defended pay schemes based on length of service.
It said that since experience "enables the worker to perform his duties better", the employer did not have to justify paying longer-serving male workers more than their female counterparts for doing the same job "unless the worker provides evidence capable of raising serious doubts in that regard".
It added that there was "no need to show that an individual worker has acquired experience during the relevant period which has enabled him to perform his duties better".
Ms Cadman's case will now be referred back to the court of appeal and then to the employment tribunal, where she could win a salary rise and six years' back-dated pay.
Emma Hawksworth, Ms Cadman's solicitor, claimed the HSE would "now have to justify" paying her client £9,000 less than her male colleagues doing the same job.
Paul Noon, general secretary of Prospect - Ms Cadman's union - added that the ruling had "enormous implications" for "any employer whose pay or benefits system unreasonably rewards length of time in employment".
Leena Linnainmaa, the president of the European Women Lawyers' Association, suggested that the situation would only become fairer for women when men took more paternity leave, something most did not do even though they had a right to in most European countries.Reuse content