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Victory in Birmingham brings equal pay another step closer

An important day for equality

Equal pay clients
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Chris Benson is one of the UK's leading discrimination and equal pay claims lawyers and has successfully represented hundreds of employees who have been treated unfairly in the workplace
It was a great day for equality. The supreme court judgment on Wednesday that equal pay claims can be heard in civil courts effectively means that they can be brought up to six years after leaving an employer rather than six months in an employment tribunal. Years of legal agonising over the technicalities of equal pay legislation are now over.

Our clients had worked at Birmingham city council for years, and had service stretching back decades. Their colleagues had received compensation for their staggering pay disparity with male counterparts, but our clients were told that they were too late to claim.

This judgment changed all that.

Our clients’ initial sense of frustration was palpable – they had been denied the chance to claim the bonuses that those in male-dominated jobs had received for years. Bonuses, which although superficially were meant to be linked to productivity, were in fact received regardless of the amount of work done, and in some cases regardless of whether the men were actually at work or not.

I spoke to our first clients in 2008, and the claims were first brought in the high court in 2010. In all the years that the Equal Pay Act 1970 had been in force, no one had thought to bring the claims in the high court. Many lawyers I spoke to assumed that, although the legislation seemed to allow for such a claim on the face of it, the courts would never tolerate such a position.

To borrow a dreadful term from management speak, we thought “outside the box” and it was this bold approach to litigation that made such a result possible.

The supreme court decision has shown that such radical leaps can be made in incremental steps. The judgment built on the two previous success we had achieved against Birmingham city council in the high court and the court of appeal, both of which Birmingham had chosen to appeal. If it had taken a more pragmatic approach at the start of this claim, then the amount of compensation and legal costs that it is now likely to have to pay would be significantly smaller.

Birmingham city council has already once tried to defend paying men bonuses that were denied to women, in the employment tribunal, and it was unsuccessful. It would surely be folly for it to try and repeat such an audacious argument in the courts.

This has been a huge result for our clients, but I also know that it will be an important decision for many other underpaid women all over the country. For decades the gender pay gap has remained stubbornly persistent, and I hope that women now feel liberated to use the legislation to improve their pay and other conditions at work – regardless of their sector, industry or workplace.

The Equal Pay Act has been in force for decades, but has struggled to have a lasting impact on women’s pay. Perhaps now the act’s true potential can be realised; it feels like parity in pay between the genders can be a matter of years away, rather than decades.

This article appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free section of its website

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