Equality Act will spark a ‘wave’ of work claims

Lawyers predict that he implementation of the Equality Act will lead to a rise in employment disputes as they take to the courts to test the boundaries of the legislation.

Rachel Dineley
Rachel Dineley

Beachcroft partner Khurram Shamsee says there will be a “short wave of claims” while various aspects of the legislation are tested, with 7 Bedford Row barrister Smair Soor agreeing.

“In the short term there’ll be more work for the Employment Tribunal because people are more aware of their rights,” says Soor.

The act, which was devised by former Labour minister Harriet Harman, was implemented on 1 October after more than five years in the making. It harmonises existing ­discrimination legislation on sex, race, ­disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.

Defendant lawyers say rather than heaping more bureaucracy on employers, the act clarifies existing law and could help to reduce red tape in the long term.

“Bringing together all the legislation is very helpful,” says Morrison Foerster London employment head Ann Bevitt. “There’s greater harmonisation and more clarity.”

Beachcroft partner Rachel Dineley, who has been advising companies on whether they should alter their HR policies, suggests that measures in the act will force employers to consider the rights of employees as individuals rather than collectively and therefore advance the rights of employees.

She argues: “The emphasis is on the merits of the individual. It encourages transparency and consistency in approach.”

However, claimant employment lawyers say the legislation symbolises an opportunity missed, with key elements watered down by the Government.

Russell Jones & Walker Solicitors associate Samantha Mangwana, who is representing gender campaign organisation the Fawcett Society on its High Court challenge to Chancellor George Osborne’s budget, comments: “It’s ambitious as a piece of harmonising legislation but it’s for employers rather than employees.

“What it doesn’t do, disappointingly, is advance the rights of the individual. It does include measures to improve rights but those are a tiny proportion of the act.”

The original equality bill included plans to force private companies to be transparent on pay. The measures would have meant that from 2013 all companies with more than 250 employees would be forced to report on their gender pay gap.

Those plans, rejected by the Conservatives in opposition, have now been put on hold indefinitely.

The coalition has also held back measures that would have allowed employers to positively discriminate in the recruitment process.

“They’ve taken out the more radical parts,” one employment partner says. “It could’ve been radical but instead it reinforces the original position.

“They could’ve forced public sector employers to consider the socio-­economic backgrounds of employees but that’s been put on hold because the Tories didn’t like it.”

Yet the coalition is about to introduce mass spending cuts that are expected to pile pressure on employers, potentially leading to huge employment disputes.

Under pressure, the Government has conceded certain points of the act and not everyone is disappointed with the outcome, least of all employment lawyers who will reap the benefits of a ­litigation wave.