The 174 former Birmingham city council employees, who left their jobs as cooks, cleaners and care staff between 2004 and 2008, are demanding compensation, claiming the council denied them the extra payments and benefits given to men doing similar jobs.
The council had tried to block the claims, arguing that they should have been made in front an employment tribunal, which have a six-month time limit. The former employees then launched an action for damages in the High Court, which has a time limit of six years for claims cases. They won but the council appealed to the Supreme Court, only to lose again.
Chris Benson, a partner at law firm Leigh Day & Co, which represented the ex-council workers, said: “This is a great day for equality and for all those women massively underpaid over many years within public and private organisations. Birmingham Council should now do the decent thing and settle the claims.”
The landmark ruling could potentially pave the way for many similar claims. Jawaid Rehman, Associate Solicitor at national law firm Weightmans told HR magazine: “This landmark judgment has potentially huge implications for local authorities and employers alike. Individuals who find out that their ex-colleagues have been successful in equal pay claims, even well after their employment has ended or after they have transferred to a new employer under TUPE, can now pursue their former employers in the civil courts. “
However, one deterrent for employees is that civil claims are much more complex and time consuming compared to tribunal proceedings. Perhaps more importantly, claimants could also face significant costs implications if their claims are unsuccessful,” he added.
However, Glenn Hayes, a Partner and employment law expert at Irwin Mitchell, cast doubt over the potential impact the ruling would have.
“Considering the exposure and number of claims already brought in relation to equal pay issues, it may be a little rash to assume that many more will be brought about as a result of this ruling," he said.
“Whether equal pay claims are brought at all is likely to be determined by whether claimants can obtain funding and legal help via their union membership or elsewhere. It must also be remembered that due to the funding likely to be available and costs consequences that can result from bringing claims in the civil courts, only cases deemed strong enough in the eyes of the legal adviser are likely to be taken on.”
Denise Keating, CEO of leading diversity campaigner Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion welcomed the claims.
“This is clearly the day that common sense prevailed,” she said. “Employers in the UK need to sit up and take notice of this case as this will not be a one off and hopefully it will change the business world for the better in the future. It is nonsense that women, who make up half of our workforce and play a vital role in the economy, are often overlooked and paid less than their male counterparts.“