Victory for mothers who work

Roger Pearson looks at a case which involved two women who were fired for not returning to work when their maternity leave had ended.

A recent Appeal Court ruling in respect of the employment rights of women wishing to return to work after maternity leave is estimated to have implications for as many as 25,000 women each year.

Mary Stacey, a partner and head of the equality section at trade union law firm Thompsons says the decision by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf and Lords Justices Aldous and Mummery is of major significance to women's return-to-work rights after maternity leave.

Leave to appeal to the House of Lords has been given, but the judgment is seen as a model of clarity which will be hard to overturn.

The case centred on two women sacked from their jobs after failing to return to work through illness when their maternity leave ended. One of the women, 36-year-old Janet Greaves lost her job as a clerk at Kwik Save Stores after returning to work to deliver a sick note.

The other, Heather Crees, 42, lost her job with the Royal London Mutual Insurance Society after sending in a written notice saying she was unable to return because of sickness following her maternity leave.

Both women sued for compensation for unfair dismissal but their claims were rejected firstly by industrial tribunals and then by the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

Now, however, the appeal judges have held that what happened to them did, in the eyes of the law, amount to unfair dismissal. They have ruled that, in the light of that finding, the cases of the two women should go back to industrial tribunals for the question of compensation to be decided.

Greaves and Crees were backed in their fight by the Manufacturing Science Finance Union and the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers.

Stacey, who represented them, says: "The important thing about the case is that it provides statutory protection for women faced with the predicament Janet Greaves and Heather Crees were in.

"Some women's employment contracts will automatically protect them but in cases where no such protection is written into a contract this decision is important."

However, she warns that one of the important messages to be distilled from the judgment is that working women must take care to comply with all the legal requirements relating to notification if they are intending to return to work after maternity leave.

"They must comply with notification requirements on returning to work," she says.

"If they do this, then they should be protected from any unfair dismissal such as happened here."

As far as the case itself was concerned it raised a point that she considered had needed to go before the courts for a long time. However, for it to be raised, the cases needed to be the right ones.

"We chose these cases very carefully as test cases. The facts in these two cases were perfect for the purpose," says Stacey.

However, she believes that another advantage was the attitude of the two women themselves. "We were very lucky in that the applicants were towers of strength throughout. That makes a lot of difference in a case like this one."

The case was successfully argued in court on behalf of the women by employment law silk, Laura Cox with Damien Brown as her junior.