Equality law ‘baffling tribunals’

By Alex Stevenson

Employment discrimination cases face confusion over the next two months as tribunals struggle to interpret the Equality Act coming into force today, lawyers have warned.

Guidance on how the previous nine pieces of equality legislation will be replaced with the unified rules under the Equality Act was only released ten days ago.

Coalition embraces Harman’s Equality Act

The late publication of the guidance has triggered concerns that employment tribunals will struggle to interpret the government’s intentions.

“It’s not a big deal if no one brings a claim in the next couple of months but unfortunately the employment tribunals are inundated with claims,” Sandra Wallace, head of equality and diversity at law firm DLA Piper, told politics.co.uk.

“By issuing the implementing legislation so late in the day, and not incorporating all elements of the Act, businesses have been left with a halfway house that will potentially confuse them even more than they already were, and risk protracted legal wrangles in employment tribunals that are already overstretched with a general increase in claims.”

Angry firms are already complaining about having to face a £190 million bill to comply with the new legislation, which enhances protection for disabled people and prevents employers from banning staff talking about their pay packages.

Tribunals are handed greater powers which allow them to make recommendations affecting the whole workforce rather than just individuals.

In the short-term they face having to work out whether cases should be heard under the old laws or the new harmonised legislation.

“There are always problems with what’s called transitional provisions as to whether you bring your claim under the new act or the old act, particularly in discrimination when the thing you’re complaining about is an ongoing thing which can straddle a particular date,” employment lawyer Alex Bearman of Russell-Cooke Solicitors told politics.co.uk.

Orders issued ten days ago state discriminatory acts carried out before today apply under the old laws, while those occurring from now on will qualify under the new laws.

Ms Wallace added: “Acts of discrimination rarely fit into neat boxes – they are often based on allegations regarding actions that take place over long periods of time – which means the details on how and when laws are going to change is absolutely critical in this situation.”

Mr Bearman pointed out: “To be fair, the act in its present form has been around for many months.”

He said the orders issued ten days ago only announced which aspects of the legislation were to be introduced today. Further provisions will come into force in December.