174 former Birmingham City Council employees – including women who worked as cooks, cleaners and care assistants – who left their jobs between 2004 and 2008 have won the right to pursue their equal pay claims in the civil courts as breach of contract in a landmark decision that, in practical terms, extends the time workers have in which to bring such claims from six months to six years.
The women argued that they had been denied payments and benefits given to men doing equivalent work, in breach of equal pay legislation. They were prevented from taking their cases to the Employment Tribunal (ET), however, due to the expiry of the six-month time limit that applies to such cases. Instead, the women launched High Court proceedings, which benefit from a more generous six-year limitation period.
Birmingham City Council attempted to strike out the women’s claims on the basis that resolution of equal pay disputes fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the ET. The High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected the Council’s argument and the Supreme Court, by a majority of three judges to two, has now dismissed its appeal.
The judgment effectively extends the time limit for equal pay claims from six months to six years, which is the biggest change to equal pay legislation since it was first introduced in 1970. It leaves employers open to the threat of claims long after the employment relationship has come to an end, with an award for costs made against them should they lose the case.
The Supreme Court did suggest that Parliament might wish to consider introducing a relaxation of the usual limitation period for the presentation of an equal pay claim to the ET in cases in which the claim had been brought, in time, before the civil court but where it would more conveniently be disposed of by the ET were it not for the imposition of the limitation period.