Discrimination against pregnant women: 1,000 legal actions brought every year

The report, “Pregnancy discrimination at work: a review”, has revealed that the average compensation award for women who have been dismissed because of their pregnancy for injury to feelings was £2,000 lower than the average awards given for non-pregnancy related dismissals. An analysis of tribunal cases revealed that the majority of women were dismissed prior to going on maternity leave, sometimes within hours or days of informing their employers that they are pregnant.

Julie Mellor, Chair of the EOC, described the number of women taking legal action as “the tip of iceberg”. “Our research indicates employers’ concerns about the impact of their staff’s childcare problems can mean that some see the announcement of an employee’s pregnancy as forewarning of difficulties in the future,” she commented. “The childcare challenge for parents is made worse by Britain’s long hours and a lack of flexibility. The economic realities of modern life mean that most parents have to work.”

The EOC also reported that the current legal time limit for making a claim of pregnancy discrimination is three months. “This means that many women must lodge their claim with the employment tribunal during the latter stages of pregnancy or when they have recently given birth,” the report noted; adding that more research was needed to look at whether the current tribunal system is fully accessible to pregnant women.

Janet Gaymer, senior partner at City firm Simmons & Simmons and chair of the Employment Tribunal System Taskforce, is advising further EOC research into the discrimination against expectant women. Gaymer said that she was “sadly unsurprised” that so many pregnant women were forced to take legal action. “As people are more aware of their rights and as rights expand through case law, it is almost inevitable that there won’t be a falling off,” she said. “It’s not just a question of litigation, there is a huge educational job to be done here.”

Gaymer said that compensation awards for women dismissed because of their pregnancy for injury to feelings was likely to be affected by the recent case of Christopher Dunnachie v. Kingston Upon Hull City Council, as reported by LawZone on 17 February. The case concerned an environmental health officer, who worked for Hull city council for 15 years who resigned following, according to the Court of Appeal, “a prolonged campaign of harassment and undermining” by a colleague and sometime line manager. The case overturned the notion that compensation for unfair dismissal covered only quantifiable pecuniary losses.

Whilst Dunnachie was not a discrimination case, she believed that it could well have an impact. “It has dropped a bit of a bombshell,” she said. “The previously understood wisdom that there is no award for non-financial loss for unfair dismissal claims was wrong for the last 32 years and we can begin to see a developing series of decisions on what is right quantum.”