The House of Lords in St Helen’s Borough Council v Derbyshire and others, upheld a tribunal’s finding that letters sent to school dinner ladies who were pursuing equal pay claims against the council, and which stated that the continuance of those claims could lead to redundancies and deprive children of school dinners, amounted to victimisation under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

The case concerned a group of school dinner ladies who argued that they were entitled to the same rates of pay as road sweepers. Many of the dinner ladies reached a settlement, but a small group refused to settle. The council then wrote a letter to all staff stating that, if successful, the cost of the claims would mean that school meal provision would have to be scaled back and that this would lead to a reduced workforce. A second letter was sent to the women urging them to settle and referring to the first letter.

The employment tribunal and EAT found that the letters were “effectively a threat” amounting to victimisation. However, the Court of Appeal overturned this, holding that the letters were ‘an honest and reasonable attempt by the council to compromise proceedings’.

However, the House of Lords has now restored the tribunal’s original finding that the letters went beyond a “honest and reasonable attempt to settle a claim”. Instead, the object of the letters was to put pressure on the women to settle; that they were treated less favourably than staff who were not pursuing equal pay claims; and that the letters amounted to a detriment. Accordingly, there was no reason for interfering with the tribunal’s decision that the letters amounted to victimisation.

Employers need to be aware that where an employer pressures an employee complaining of discrimination to settle or abandon her claim this can constitute victimisation, even where the pressure is indirect. An employer is entitled to take steps to protect its own interests but must avoid doing anything that might make a reasonable employee feel she is being unduly pressured to concede her claim. Whether the line between protecting their interests and undue pressure amounting to victimisation has been crossed will depend on the facts of the particular case.