In a key test of the rights of working women, the Court of Appeal decided IGE Medical Systems, a US company, acted unlawfully when it sacked Marion Halfpenny. The ruling clarifies the position of women who suffer complications in pregnancy and problems such as post-natal depression and then want to return to work.
Yesterday Mrs Halfpenny said: "This is the best Christmas present I could get. I am ecstatic with the result - the injustice of my case was the motivation behind my decision to take legal action."
Mrs Halfpenny, 39, of Broadbottom, Cheshire, became pregnant in 1994 and took paid sick leave from August of that year until March 1995, when her maternity leave began.
In September 1995 she told managers she would be back by the end of the following month. But on 13 October she asked for a postponement, because she had post-natal depression but her employers refused to extend her leave beyond 27 November. When Mrs Halfpenny was unable to return on that date, IGE said her contract was at an end.
She went to an industrial tribunal, which ruled in favour of the employer on grounds she had not returned to work and therefore was not employed and could not be dismissed.
The Employment Appeals Tribunal agreed with the lower-court decision. The company,which has an equal-opportunities policy, has registered its intention to appeal to the Lords against yesterday's ruling.
Clare Hockney, principal legal officer with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which backed the case, said the Court of Appeal's ruling was a "landmark decision" and would have a big impact on many other female employees.
"Mrs Halfpenny was exceptionally hard working and a long-standing employee," Ms Hockney said. "Her sickness record was excellent until she became pregnant. Unfortunately, she suffered illness during pregnancy and post-natal depression. As soon as she became well enough, Mrs Halfpenny made strenuous efforts to return to work. All she wanted was to be treated the same as any other employee."
The court was told that a male employee who had been on long sick leave had been treated more leniently than Mrs Halfpenny.
Mrs Halfpenny is now studying law and wants to specialise in discrimination and employment affairs. She registered her determination to seek damages for loss of earnings and injured feelings. Legislation imposes no upper limit on compensation for sex discrimination.
In his ruling Lord Justice Ward said she was a "linchpin" in the Cheshire office of the company. Originally her employers were sympathetic and agreed to extend her leave, but eventually management said that she could not have her job back. In doing so, IGE was deemed to have dismissed her unfairly. The judges also found it amounted to sex discrimination, because her treatment was less favourable than that of a male colleague.Reuse content