Equal pay appeal win for cooks and care staff


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The Independent Online

Cooks, cleaners, caterers and care staff today won a landmark Court of Appeal decision which could pave the way for many more equal pay claims.

Three appeal judges ruled such claims could be heard in the High Court as well as at an Employment Tribunal.

Lawyers say the decision is significant as it means employees who thought their claims were barred by tribunal time limits can now seek to recover compensation.

The decision was a victory for 174 women ex-employees of Birmingham City Council represented by law firm Leigh Day & Co.

The law firm says the ruling opens the way for many potential claimants in both the private and public sector who thought their claims were outside the limitation period to pursue actions.

Birmingham City Council had appealed against a deputy High Court judge's ruling in December last year that the High Court did have jurisdiction to determine the claims.

The council had contended cases could only be heard by the Employment Tribunal, where cases have to be lodged within six months after leaving employment or a change of contract within employment - compared with a six-year time limit for claims brought in the High Court .

Appeal judges Lord Justice Mummery, Lord Justice Davis and Dame Janet Smith dismissed the appeal.

They unanimously ruled Birmingham council had failed to establish that the deputy judge's construction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act was wrong or in any way flawed.

Dismissing the appeal, Lord Justice Mummery said it was an "interesting case" under the Equality Act.

The judge said it was "extraordinary" that this was the first time the issue had been raised - 40 years after the Act came into force.

Seeking permission to take the case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, Birmingham Council's lawyers said the decision was likely to result in a "large number" of claims against both itself and other local authorities by former employees.

Refusing permission, Lord Justice Mummery said that, although it was a case that might well affect "many, many other cases", the Supreme Court itself should decide whether to hear it.

The 174 women were among female workers denied bonuses similar to those handed out to employees in traditionally male-dominated jobs such as refuse collectors, street cleaners, road workers and gravediggers.

The court heard that, in 2007 and 2008, tens of thousands of pounds were paid to female council employees to compensate them.

More payments have also been made this year to women who went to the Employment Tribunal.

However, only workers who were still employed or who had only recently left their employment were eligible to make claims.

Those who had left more than six months earlier were caught by the six-month deadline for making claims to the tribunal, the judges heard.

The employees then launched breach of contract claims in the High Court to get round the time limit.

Last December, Birmingham Council applied to the High Court to have the claims struck out on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear them.

The High Court refused the application, ruling the Equal Pay Act gave the court a "jurisdictional choice".

Today the appeal judges agreed.

Lord Justice Mummery said the courts were being asked to "stifle claims" for the "convenience" of the council.

If the claims could not be brought before the High Court their merits could not be considered at all.

The judge said that could not have been Parliament's intention - "still less does it seem to me to be a sensible or just outcome in the majority of cases".

Later, Leigh Day partner Chris Benson, who is representing the ex-workers, said: "Every judge that has considered this case in both the High Court and Court of Appeal has expressed the view quite clearly that these claims on behalf of our clients would be successful and Birmingham City Council would lose."

Mr Benson accused the city council of trying to use "legal technicalities" to avoid paying the female workers what they were owed.

In doing so they were "continuing to waste taxpayers' money, ramping up the legal costs unnecessarily by fighting a hopeless battle".

Mr Benson added: "It is disappointing for our clients, and no doubt of concern to the taxpayers of Birmingham, that they have decided to appeal again to the Supreme Court and we would urge them to reconsider."

He said that, if today's ruling stands, many other similar claims could come before the courts.

"In some councils these inequalities have only recently been phased out and in other cases the inequalities amazingly still exist."

Among the claimants in today's case was Linda Manders, 59, from Selly Oak in the West Midlands.

She worked for Birmingham Council for 10 years as a lunchtime supervisor at Northfield Manor junior and infant school, which she left in 2008.

Her lawyers said the headmaster had told her she would receive compensation, but she was later told she was not eligible because she had left more than six months earlier and she could not make a claim.

Ms Manders said: "I was disgusted but there was nothing I could do.

"I gave 10 years' service to the council. The lunchtime supervisor role was the only job that fitted round my needs.

"The pay was low and much lower than men on the same pay grade.

"Not being able to claim the pay I was entitled to is simply not right and this judgment helps me and others like me who may now be able to recover what they should have been paid over many years."