Nine-year court battle nets £270 in maternity pay

A secretary has won a nine-year legal battle against the Government in a case that will have far-reaching consequences for thousands of women.

Michelle Alabaster began legal proceedings after claiming that her former employer broke European sex discrimination law by underpaying her during maternity leave.

Spanning nearly a decade, the case passed from an employment tribunal to an appeal tribunal in Kent before being heard in the European Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal in London.

Yesterday, Mrs Alabaster was awarded £204.53 plus £65.86 interest in maternity back pay as the battle she had vigorously pursued "on principle" was finally resolved in her favour.

The outcome is poised to pave the way to enable thousands of working mothers to claim higher maternity pay. The ruling closes a loophole in the Equal Pay Act that requires women claiming unfair treatment at work due to her pregnancy to show a man in the same situation would have been treated differently.

Hugging her nine-year-old daughter, Ellie - with whom she was pregnant when she launched the action, Mrs Alabaster, 36, said: "Pregnancy is an expensive time for new mums and it is hard making ends meet. I am proud I have fought for what is right. Thousands of women will benefit from what I have done."

It was in 1996 when Mrs Alabaster became pregnant with Ellie that she began her case against her employer, Woolwich Building Society, which is now owned by Barclays Bank. Mrs Alabaster, from Bexleyheath, Kent, had joined the company in 1987 as a secretary in the computer services department. Issues arose when Mrs Alabaster was awarded a pay rise six weeks before she was due to start her maternity leave in December 1995. She subsequently received maternity leave payments based on her previous salary.

The case was initially directed against the Woolwich but the building society had followed government regulations in calculating the pay level. As a result, the main defendant became the Secretary of State for Social Security. In March last year, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled in her favour and yesterday, the Court of Appeal in London found the judgment also applied to English law.

Lord Justices Brooke, Latham and Neuberger accepted a House of Lords ruling that her pregnancy "was a circumstance relevant to her case that could not be present in the case of the hypothetical male comparator". Julie Mellor, the chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), welcomed a ruling that closed a legal loophole that had prevented women on maternity leave from bringing equal pay claims.

As many as 30,000 women are forced out of their jobs every year due to pregnancy discrimination while one in five are believed to lose out financially, according to research published by the EOC. The pay losses were attributed to pay cuts, salary increases that are lower than their male counterparts or due to the denial of bonuses.

While it is illegal to dismiss a woman because she is pregnant, the EOC estimates that one in 20 working mothers who are expecting a baby face extreme pressure to leave their job.

Ms Mellor said: "This case demonstrates that Britain's equal pay legislation needs an overhaul and we are delighted that the Court has recognised that women on maternity leave do not need to find a male comparator when bringing equal pay claims."

The fight against discrimation

* It was in 1891 that the Factory and Workshop Act prohibited work for four weeks after childbirth

* In 1911 a flat-rate grant of £1.50 was introduced as maternity pay for women

* This improved in 1948, with the introduction of a maternity allowance of £1.80 for 13 weeks

* Now women are entitled to 26 weeks leave plus 26 weeks more if they have worked for their employer for 26 weeks by the 15th week before a baby is due

* For the first six weeks, women are entitled to 90 per cent of their average pay. They then receive £102.90 per week for 20 weeks or 90 per cent of their average earnings if that is less

* According to the EOC, nearly half of all women who are pregnant at work experience some form of discrimination. EOC research also found that one in five were put under pressure to hand in their notice when they announced their pregnancy.