Justifying direct age discrimination: What is a Legitimate Aim?

October 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

A fundamental feature of UK and EU anti discrimination law is the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination. For direct discrimination there is usually no justification defence, however for indirect discrimination there is usually a defence. Article 6 of the Equality Directive 2000/78 provides that Member States may provide differences of treatment on grounds of age shall not constitute discrimination if they are objectively and reasonably justified by a legitimate aim, including legitimate employment policy, labour market and vocational training objectives and if the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary. Therefore differences of treatment on grounds of age will not constitute direct discrimination provided they are objectively justified.

The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006, and more recently the Equality Act 2010, took full advantage of the wording of Article 6 and provides a general justification defence in respect of direct age discrimination. In other words we do not have an exhaustive list of accepted grounds as an exception to the prohibition against direct age discrimination. Direct age discrimination is justified if ‘the treatment is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ (section 13 Equality Act 2010).The general justification defence leaves the law in a state of uncertainty as to what may or may not constitute a legitimate aim. However there have been a number of decisions by the Court of Justice of the European Union that have considered the justification of direct age discrimination. Having examined these decisions the following points will assist in determining whether there is a legitimate aim in a particular case:

1. The legitimate aim must be linked to a social policy objective, as opposed to a individual reason particular to the employer’s business such as cost reduction or improving competitiveness.

2. What is legitimate will depend upon the context of the measure. For example in the case of Palacios de la Villa v Cortefiel Servicios SA C411/05 the fact that the economic background characterised by high unemployment was relevant to whether the measure in question pursued a legitimate aim.

3. Flexibility for employers is not a legitimate aim but a certain degree of flexibility may be permitted to pursue the social policy objective.

4. The following are examples of potential legitimate aims (some are more controversial than others):

i. The prevention of job blocking ‘the fair innings argument’ /sharing employment opportunities between generations

ii. Promoting access to employment for young people

iii. Enabling older people to remain in the workforce

iv. Ensuring a mix of generations of staff so as to promote the exchange of experience and ideas

v. Encouraging and rewarding loyalty

vi. Providing a target age for succession planning/efficient planning of the departure and recruitment of staff

vii. Encourage employees to save for retirement

viii. Avoiding the need to dismiss employees on the ground that they are no longer capable of doing the job which may be humiliating to the employee concerned

ix. Avoiding disputes as to the employee’s ability to do the work which contributes to a congenial workforce.

x. The avoidance of a windfall to an employee whether that windfall is large or small.

The fact that a particular aim is capable of being a legitimate aim under the Equality Directive (and the Equality Act 2010) is only the first step. There must then be a consideration as to whether it is the aim being pursued and whether it is appropriate and necessary in that particular case. An example provided by Lady Hale in the Supreme Court decision of Seldon v Clarkson Wright and Jakes [2010] EWCA Civ 899 is that avoiding the need to performance manage an individual may be a legitimate aim but if the business in question has a ‘sophisticated management measure in place it may not be legitimate to avoid them for only one section of the workforce.’

 The case of Ormerod v Cummins ET case number 2508268/09 is an example of the employer falling at this hurdle. In that case the Claimant brought a claim of direct age discrimination arising from his redundancy payment calculation. He did not receive his full entitlement because he was approaching retirement and thus in the Company’s view would provide him with a windfall. Although the Tribunal recognised that the avoidance of a windfall is a potential legitimate aim, it was not legitimate in this case. The Tribunal placed great reliance on the lack of attempt by the employer to advance a case as to what the windfall was. Furthermore the redundancy package and the early drawing of the pension actually deprived the Claimant of various other benefits including the loss of opportunity to work on and enhance his pension and the loss of potential bonus and overtime. Therefore the Tribunal will not simply accept the fact that it may be a legitimate aim then go straight to determine whether the means of achieving that aim are appropriate and necessary. There must be a consideration of that aim against the facts of the particular case.

– Lyndsey Martin

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