Government plans to speed up equal pay cases

In December 2000, the UK government issued proposals intended to streamline employment tribunal procedures for dealing with claims relating to equal pay for women and men.

On 11 December 2000, the Department for Education and Employment published a consultation paper outlining proposals for simpler and speedier employment tribunal procedures for handling cases relating to equal pay for women and men. In 1999-2000, there were some 2,400 equal pay complaints made to employment tribunals. The procedures for handling such cases, particularly those concerning equal pay for work of equal value, have been criticised because of the length of time – sometimes years – that they can take to reach a conclusion. The new proposals follow the November 2000 announcement of amendments to employment tribunal rules more generally (UK0012102N).

The new proposals include:

  • introducing a questionnaire to elicit the necessary evidence from employers more quickly;
  • enabling a single application (and a single employer response) where a group of applicants have essentially the same case;
  • removing the power of a tribunal to dismiss a claim if it has "no reasonable grounds" to presume it would succeed;
  • helping tribunals to decide cases more quickly by calling in an "assessor" to give expert advice;
  • limiting tribunals to hearing expert evidence from a tribunal-appointed independent expert only; and
  • simplifying the rules relating to equal value cases.

Two other proposals put forward in the consultation paper are in response to rulings of the European Court of Justice. These are:

  • extending the two-year limit on back pay in equal pay cases to six years (five years in Scotland); and
  • extending protection against sex discrimination to include discrimination taking place up to six months after a person's employment ends.

The consultation paper also includes proposals for amending the employment provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act to meet the requirements of the EU Council Directive (97/80/EC) on the burden of proof in sex discrimination cases (extended to cover the UK by Directive 98/52/EC) which the UK must implement by July 2001. These involve broadening the definition of indirect discrimination, and amending the requirements on the burden of proof so that where the claimant has made a prima facie case it will be up to the respondent (employer) to disprove the claims (this already applies in respect of cases under the Equal Pay Act).

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) welcomed the consultation paper but emphasised that making employment tribunal procedures more effective would not in itself solve the problem of unequal pay. Julie Mellor, chair of the EOC, said that labour market issues - such as the concentration of women in certain types of job – needed to be tackled, and that employers could also help reduce the gender pay gap by ensuring that their pay systems are fair. An equal pay task force set up by the EOC is due to present recommendations for dealing with discriminatory pay systems in February 2001.

The Confederation of British Industry generally welcomed the government's initiative, particularly the simplification of the procedures for group claims, but said that the proposal to remove the "no reasonable grounds" defence would worry business because it may make it more difficult for tribunals to dismiss weak claims.

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