The government has been accused of undermining its own commitment to equality at work by trying to force Magistrates' Court clerks under the age of 40 to take a solicitor or barrister qualification, according to the Association of Magisterial Officers and the trade union law firm Thompsons.

A challenge to the policy, which was made by the Lord Chancellor's Department, began this week in the Croydon employment tribunal. Seven female court clerks are claiming that they have been sexually discriminated again by the new qualifications requirement and that the policy is in breach of the Human Rights Act. The case is expected to last two weeks.

Female court clerks under 40 are the most likely to have family responsibilities and because of the limited number of centres where they can retrain, they are faced with unfeasible travel requirements. Some may have to consider leaving their jobs as a result.

Not only does this discriminate against women clerks, it also breaches Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which stipulates that everyone has the right to respect for their family and private life, AMO and Thompsons claim.

Rosie Eagleson, general secretary of the Association of Magisterial Officers says the case is "an opportunity for the government to set an example to other employers".

"This requirement on qualified court clerks to obtain a further legal qualification simply does not fit with the government's stated commitment to the work-life balance because of its disproportionate impact on women with children," she said.

Nicola Dandridge, head of equal rights at Thompsons Solicitors, said that all the women wanted was the right to keep their jobs.

"There has been no criticism of these women's performance yet the government, through the magistrates' courts, is insisting on them having qualifications which have little bearing on their jobs. The government is placing demands on female court clerks which are incompatible with their child care commitments and Thompsons believes that this is in contravention of that part of the Human Rights Act which is designed to strengthen family friendly policies," she said.

Notes to editors

The case of Waring and others v East Sussex Magistrates Court involves women working in courts in several regions of the country. These are East Sussex, Wiltshire, Cheshire, Cambridgeshire, Lancashire and Cleveland

The preliminary hearing in May of the case saw the Lord Chancellor's Department succeed in having itself removed as a respondent in the case.