Supreme Court ruling paves way for equal pay claims through civil courts allowing longer claim period

The Supreme Court yesterday (24th October) published its judgment in the case of Birmingham City Council v Abdulla and others, which involved equal pay claims by workers at the Council. The vast majority of the claimants were women who had worked as cleaners, home helps and in similar jobs, with basic pay of between £10000 and £15000. Men in equivalent male-dominated jobs such as refuse collectors, street cleaners and grave diggers earned similar basic wages but were able to earn bonuses of up to £15,000 per year which were not available to those in traditionally female-dominated jobs.

In 2007 and 2008 many female Council employees brought claims, arguing that the Council’s policy of not offering bonuses to women contravened equal pay rules. The employees won and were awarded thousands of pounds in compensation.

But this was of no help to workers who had left the Council more than six months before, because the time limit for making a claim in the employment tribunal is six months from the date the employment ended.

The group now known as ‘Abdulla’ was formed, taking its name from the first named woman on the list, and the women took their claim to the High Court, where a time limit of six years applies.

Birmingham Council’s argument was that, unless the workers could show a very good reason why they did not make their claim within six months, their claim should be dismissed because there would be no purpose in providing a strict time table for employment tribunal claims if those who do not comply can simply take their claim to the courts.

The five Supreme Court judges were split on the question. Two of them felt that allowing employment claims to proceed in the civil courts when the tribunal time limit has expired was to frustrate the policy underlying the time limit provisions of the Equal Pay Act 1970. But the other three judges considered that the reason why the Equal Pay Act made no provision for extending the six-month time limit must be that Parliament recognised that an alternative claim in the civil courts was available. So the workers won by a narrow majority.

Said David Hetherington law specialist at Grant Saw Solicitors in Greenwich: “We have had equal pay legislation for over 40 years, but there are still many discrepancies, and this case opens the door for employees who only realise that they might have a claim against their former employers after they had left the job.

“The claim of the Abdulla group was under the Equal Pay Act 1970, where employment tribunals have no power to extend the time limit – even by minutes – and so this case marks a major shift in attitude from the courts towards late claims from employees.  It remains to be seen whether the case has wider implications for other types of employment claim.”

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.