News In Focus
Supreme Court allows court hearing of equal pay claims
24 October 2012
Equal pay claims can be pursued in court within the general time bar perods even though they would be out of time if taken to an employment tribunal, the UK Supreme Court ruled today.
By a 3-2 majority, the justices dismissed an appeal by Birmingham City Council who argued that claims by 174 female former employees should be struck out. The ruling is said to affect thousands of other potential claimants.
The council maintained that the claims could "more conveniently be disposed of" in an employment tribunal, in terms of s 2(3) of the Equal Pay Act 1970, that they would be there be dismissed as time barred, having been brought more than six months after the women left their employment. There would be no purpose, it argued, in providing a strict time limit for presenting a claim to the tribunal if those who failed to comply with it could have their claims heard elsewhere.
Lord Wilson, with whom Lady Hale and Lord Reed agreed, said that the fact that there was no provision for extending the six month limit suggested that Parliament recognised the availability of an alternative claim in court. The objective of s 2(3) was the distribution of judicial business for resolution in the forum more fitted for it. In most cases it would be more convenient for an employment tribunal to dispose of a claim, provided it could still be brought there, but the reasons for failure to bring the claim in the tribunal were not relevant in any way to the notion of convenience, and barring an abuse of process, a claim could never be more conveniently disposed of by the tribunal if it would there be dismissed for being out of time.
Lors Sumption and Carnwath, dissenting, reasoned that allowing the claims to proceed in court frustrated the policy underlying the provisions of the Act relating to limitation. There were substantial advantages for both the parties and for the broader interests of justice in having claims heard in employment tribunals, and limitation was a particularly important defence for employers facing equal treatment claims. "Convenience" under s 2(3) went further than the narrow question of the more efficient distribution of judicial business; the fact that a claim would be time barred in the employment tribunal was a highly relevant although not conclusive factor.
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