In 2018, financial cuts for the Ministry of Justice were triggering a surprising dispute about age discrimination, and when it is justified in the work place. In response to the financial crisis, the government had slashed spending,  in a series of cuts which triggered reduced pay increases for those working in the public sector.  Employees across all departments were facing longer waits for smaller pay increases.  As discontent began to spread throughout sectors, one man decided to challenge the government on the plans.

Mr Heskett had worked as a probation officer at the Ministry of Justice for several years when he was told the MOJ had amended the rate at which some Probation Officers would be promoted up the salary scale. Previously he could have reached the top of the salary scale within seven to eight years. With the changes, it would now take 23.

Mr Heskett believed this change amounted to indirect age discrimination, as employees who had already made progress through the scale would now receive more in salary and pension than those of lower in seniority and experience. He calculated the difference in financial reward would be around £5,000.

The Tribunal

The case was brought to an employment tribunal later that year, and it was held that prima facie age discrimination had occured. In court, prima facie is the term used to describe a case with enough evidence to proceed to trial or judgment. The question to be answered by the tribunal was whether the MOJ was justified in slowing down salary progression, or if the changes had been made based on cost alone.

Mr Heskett argued that the latter was true, and that the move was not made with a legitimate aim. The MOJ, on the other hand, stated that the policies were essential to cope with serious funding issues, forced on them by the central government. By reducing salary progression it argued it was able to redistribute funding in a fair and equal way.

The Employment Tribunal agreed that the changes did indeed favour employees who were over 50, and concluded that age discrimination had taken place. However, it did not agree with Mr Heskett that the MOJ was relying on cost alone to justify the changes. Instead, it ruled that it was an absence of means and funds that triggered the MOJ’s decision to slow its employee’s progression, in response to major reductions to funding. The way the MOJ formed their new policies seemed fair and equitable.

The Appeal

Mr Heskett launched an appeal against the decision, which was dismissed. The judgement was based on the cases of Benson and Edie, which confirmed that organisations could use breaking even as a legitimate aim, and could implement policies amounting to indirect discrimination if they were propotionate.

Therefore, the pay progression policy was not discriminatory in relation to the employee’s age, because the MOJ had shown that it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.