Solicitor loses appeal over retirement age

EMPLOYERS can force the retirement of older staff if they are able to prove it is in the interests of the wider workforce, according to a landmark Supreme Court ruling yesterday.

Five judges rejected an appeal by Leslie Seldon, a former partner at a Kent law firm, who had claimed he suffered age discrimination when he was forced to retire at 65.

They said employers could consider the “public interest” when telling staff to retire but sent Seldon’s case back to an employment tribunal to determine whether 65 was the correct age.

Seldon initially brought the case after leaving Clarkson, Wright and Jakes (CWJ) in 2006, before the abolition of the default retirement age. The firm argued that its stance was “legitimate and justifiable” in order to support its planning and to give younger workers the chance to move to higher positions.

Individual employers are now likely to have to prove they are ready to hand out promotions, however, rather than simply being able to push out partners when they reach a particular age.

The case was closely watched because of rising youth unemployment and an ageing population but has provoked uncertainty over company retirement policies.

“This ruling confirms that, at least in principle, companies are able to set their own retirement age. However, this does nothing to fill the vacuum left by the government’s scrapping of the default retirement age,” said Neil Carberry, CBI director for employment and skills policy.

“If employers want to set a retirement age that is suitable for their workforce, and know for sure whether it is legitimate, they will still have to go through a costly and lengthy legal process,” he added.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director general of Age UK said the case was a “wake-up call” that age discrimination is no longer legally acceptable.

“David Walker, employment partner at Dundas & Wilson, said: “More than 50 per cent of workers aged over 55 now plan to work beyond state retirement age. This will place a greater emphasis on proper performance management. If they do not do so this is likely to result in a surge in age discrimination claims if older employees are dismissed for reasons that cannot otherwise be justified.”

Andrew Wright, managing partner at CWJ, said the case had been “time consuming and expensive”.