No `excessive' award for sacked pregnant officer

She left the forces with a `burning sense of injustice'
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The Independent Online
A former Army captain claiming £505,000 for unfair dismissal after being sacked for becoming pregnant is believed to have been awarded only a fraction of the amount, in the first major case since the payments were described as "manifestly excessive" by an appeals tribunal.

Abigail Kirby-Harris, 44, who has homes in Cornwall and London, had said she left the forces with a "burning sense of injustice" when she was forced to leave her job as a teacher and interpreter. Her claim was the largest of more than 4,000 brought by women dismissed illegally by the Ministry of Defence.

But an industrial tribunal in Bristol largely rejected her claim for compensation for lost wages since her dismissal in 1982 with an award representing less than 5 per cent of the total. The tribunal was chaired by Maurice Woods, who has a reputation formaking low awards in such cases, and has said it was likely that Mrs Kirby-Harris would only have served in the forces for a further two years.

The precise amount of the award will be settled at a hearing in January and will take into account injury to feelings, pension entitlements and interest, which could greatly increase the value of two years' salary, calculated to be about £25,000.

The MoD, which has admitted unlawful discrimination in all the pregnancy cases, welcomed the decision. Compensation payments have already topped £30m.

"We are delighted with the news and very glad the decision was a sensible one," said an MoD spokesman. "It is good news for the MoD and the taxpayer." Mrs Kirby-Harris said she had yet to receive the decision in writing.

About 3,000 claims have already been settled, including an award of more than £350,000 to Josephine Green, a former Navy nurse. The remaining 1,400 women now face much lower awards. The average settlement has dropped from £25,000 to £10,000 since new guidelines were issued in the summer.

Kerry Devlin, secretary of the Armed Forces Pregnancy Dismissal Group and a solicitor in Leeds, said the new guidelines meant cases were dealt with by consideration of the percentage chance that the individual would have continued in the service. Abandoning the previous "all or nothing" approach had meant that awards had been lower, but more women were having their claims accepted.

"I think the MoD are making much lower offers," she said. "They are taking a very hard line and are appealing even small awards that they are not happy with."

Mrs Kirby-Harris, who served four years in the Royal Army Education Corps, maintained she would have converted to a permanent commission following two short-service commissions. She submitted that she would have been promoted to major and had been deprived of a career which would have lasted to retirement at the age of 55. However, RAEC officers said at the tribunal that Mrs Kirby-Harris's record indicated that her chances of gaining a permanent commission were "nil" although she had never been graded lower than "good" or "very good".

Following her dismissal she returned to work within four months of the birth of her first child but her salary as a supply teacher was far lower than her Army earnings. She rejoined the Corps in 1990 but her commission was ended in 1993.

The size of the pregnancy awards Made in the past year has angered many serving Army officers and ex-service personnel injured in conflict and in training accidents. Such large awards became a possibility after the European Court of Justice last year removed an £11,000 ceiling on British industrial compensation claims.

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