Major blow for age discrimination rules

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Age discrimination is supposed to be outlawed in the workplace. You aren't allowed to discriminate on the grounds of age when it comes to hiring and firing, redundancy, retirement, opportunities and training.

However, a court ruling means that employers may be able to get away with ignoring the rules.

The case

The case in question has been going through the courts for the last three years - and the most recent ruling was from the appeals court. It decided in favour of an NHS Trust, which had dismissed its chief executive at the age of 49, to avoid him becoming entitled to hugely enhanced pension benefits (worth about £1 million) when he hit the age of 50.

Nigel Woodcock, who was dismissed back in 2009, brought a case on the basis of age discrimination. However, his employer argued that it had not only made the move to save money, but that his role was redundant anyway

The court found in favour of the NHS Trust.


The implications

Catherine Wilson, employment partner with lawyer Thomas Eggar says this doesn't open the door to firing purely on the grounds of cost.

She explains: "Cost in itself is not a get-out clause. A major factor in this case was that his post had been made redundant in a massive restructuring exercise. If they had just decided to sack him and replace him with someone cheaper I doubt it would have had the same outcome. This is a case of 'costs-plus'." This is where cost has been put into the balance of considerations along with other factors.

It is a landmark case in one sense, in that it establishes a clear example of where the cost of keeping an older and more expensive employee can be put in the balance with other valid considerations. Wilson says this could be a issue in any number of discrimination cases. Adding: "We know that in reality cost is always a factor."

However she adds: "These cases turn to a great extent on their own facts, so there is a question over how much of a landmark this really is."

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