Equality Act may cause surge in Tribunal claims

LAWYERS warned that the Equality Act, which comes into force today, could cause a flood of claims to hit tribunals if businesses fail to comply with the new rules.

The Equality Act 2010 was introduced by Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman’s and fulfilled a 2005 manifesto commitment.

The Act brings together nine different anti-discrimination laws, including the Equal Pay Act, and aims to simplify legislation in this area.

Legal experts estimate that tribunals could be hit with a 10 per cent surge in claims, particularly related to the new “combined discrimination” offence, which allows employees to lump together a number of discrimination claims into one action. “In recent months we have seen a surge in interest among businesses as they look to update internal policies to deal with new areas of discrimination and, potentially, a substantial increase in employment tribunal claims,” said Carolyn Miller, a lawyer with McGrigors.

The Act also includes measures such as, the removal of pay secrecy, positive discrimination enforcement, and laws against third party harassment and disability discrimination.

Pre-employment health checks
There are now limited circumstances when you can ask a prospective employee health-related questions before you have offered them a job. Employers are still entitled to screen applicants about health after making an offer or after including the applicant in a short-list.

Extension of employment tribunals
Employment tribunals can now make recommendations covering an employer’s workforce rather than simply individuals involved in employment litigation. Failure to comply could be damaging to the employer’s reputation and be used in evidence against the employer in future discrimination claims, says Rachel Dineley at Beachcroft law firm.

Pay secrecy is no longer enforceable – action taken against employees for being involved in such a pay discussion will be classed as unlawful victimisation. In terms of pay differences, a claim of direct pay discrimination can be made, even if no real person comparator can be found, says Acas.

Harassment by non-work colleagues on discriminatory grounds can give rise to legal liability for an employer if the complainant has suffered such harassment on two previous occasions, according to law firm Mayer Brown International. Employers can only defend these claims if they can show they took reasonable steps to stop the third occasion occurring.

Firms should review their Equal Opportunities Policies and recruitment processes to ensure they are compliant. Employers should take the opportunity to audit their current practices.