An important decision last week by the Supreme Court means that employees will be able to bring equal pay complaints up to six years after their job has come to an end.

The decision does not change the limitation of arrears to six years before the claim is submitted. The decision does not change the time limit for bringing employment tribunal claims.

The case was brought by 174 women against Birmingham City Council who accused it of breaching their contracts by paying them less than their predominantly male comparators, including bin men and street sweepers. The women said the men were paid bonuses whereas they just received their basic salary.

The law says that anyone wanting to bring a claim in the employment tribunal has to do so within six months of a job ending. The women had ended their jobs between 2004 and 2008 but had not brought tribunal claims in time. Instead they lodged them as breach of contract claims with the High Court, where the time limit is six years.

The Council argued that the women could not do that because of a provision in the Equal Pay Act (now part of the Equality Act) which states that where it appears to the court that an equal pay claim could be disposed of “more conveniently” by a tribunal, the court can direct it to be heard there.

However, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal agreed with the women and said they could pursue their claim in an ordinary court.

The Council then tried to argue that the six-month time limit under the law would be effectively redundant if claimants could have their cases heard in another court. It said that the claims should be struck out, unless the women could provide a good reason for the delay.

But the majority of the Supreme Court has now disagreed, saying that the Council’s approach amounted to a re-write of the law by shortening the limitation period allowed by parliament for bringing claims in court. Instead, it said that courts should not strike out the claims if they would be time-barred in a tribunal.

The case will be summarised more fully in a future LELR.