The human right not to wear a suit

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The Independent Online

The British suit, standard dress for 20th century office workers, may not survive into the new millennium.

The British suit, standard dress for 20th century office workers, may not survive into the new millennium.

Its future is threatened by European legislation which will challenge the right of employers to enforce strict dress codes, lawyers will be warned this week.

Solicitors meeting at their annual conference in the incongruous setting of Disneyland, Paris, where dress is always casual,will learn that employers who force employees to wear suits will be liable to legal action under the Human Rights Act.

Barristers from Cloisters, one of the UK's foremost civil litigation chambers, were warned that the suit and other mandatory dress codes violate freedom of expression and right to privacy.

Cloisters, whose lawyers are acting for a worker who is challenging her employer's "skirts for women" policy, expects that men will soon be able to bring cases against companies that discipline or sack staff who refuse to wear suits.

It could lead to the largest group action to ever come before a British court and will have a dramatic impact on what people wear to work.

Henrietta Hill, an expert in employee rights at Cloisters, warned that once the Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, comes into force next October anybody who doesn't want to wear a suit will be able to take their case to an employment tribunal, citing sections in the Act on freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

Ms Hill said that althoughjobs involving contact with the public might be protected from the impact of the Act, those working in "closed offices" would have stronger cases.

The courts and employment tribunals have consistently ruled in favour of employers who defend legal actions against the imposition of mandatory dress codes.

In 1996 the Court of Appeal upheld Safeway's right to insist that all staff who worked in the cold meats department had short hair. That case established the principle that employers can enforce different standards of dress code for men and women.

In October men will be able to argue in an English court that if women have the right to wear trousers then they have the right to wear more casual clothes. Ms Hill expected members of the professions to be the first to challenge dress codes. The obligation on female nurses to wear caps was now open to legal challenge, she said.

The code governing court dress could also soon become more relaxed once the act comes into force. For a long time solicitors have argued that they should be allowed to wear wigs in court just like barristers.