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The Supreme Court has ruled, by a majority of three judges to two, that 174 former employees of Birmingham City Council who left their jobs between 2004 and 2008 do have the right to pursue their equal pay claims in the civil courts as breach of contract cases (Birmingham City Council v Abdulla and Others).
The women – many of whom worked as cooks, cleaners and care assistants – 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) as the six-month time limit that applies to such cases had expired. Instead, they launched High Court proceedings, which benefit from a six-year limitation period.
Birmingham City Council had attempted to strike out the women’s claims on the ground that resolution of equal pay disputes fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the ET. The High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected this argument and the Supreme Court has now dismissed the Council’s 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 means that employers are open to the threat of claims long after the employment relationship has come to an end and face the prospect of an award for costs being made against them should they lose the case.