By Daniel Hunter

A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court on equal pay should send shockwaves through virtually every human resources department in the country, the employment law specialist Bibby Consulting & Support has warned.

In what has been described as the most radical reform since the introduction of equal pay legislation in 1970, the judges upheld the right of female ex-employees of Birmingham City Council who had worked as cleaners, cooks and carers to have their equal pay claims heard by the High Court.

About 5000 female employees at the council had already been awarded compensation for their equal pay claims but the ex-employees had fallen foul of the six-month time limit imposed by employment tribunals to make their case - so they went to the High Court which allows six years to bring a claim.

The equal pay claim related to bonuses received by their male comparators that were not paid to the women, meaning the men earned on average £10,000 to £13,000 more.

The council's stance was that the women's case should not be heard because they had left the council and had not launched their claims through the accepted channels within the statutorily prescribed period after leaving. However, the Supreme Court did not accept this argument.

According to the women's lawyers, the case is likely to cost Birmingham City Council £2m and open the way for another 1000 cases of former council workers who say they were also underpaid.

But the bigger impact of the ruling could be felt in businesses throughout the land, said Bibby Consulting & Support's Managing Director Michael Slade.

"This decision makes it important that employers ensure all staff receive equal pay for equal work regardless of gender," he said. "Getting this right is particularly important because ex-employees may now have cause to refer to the civil court system for recompense if they are out of time for bringing a claim via an employment tribunal.

"The blunt message here is - get serious about equality and equal opportunities or expect to pay a heavy price."

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