The City of Frankfurt did not infringe European age discrimination laws by imposing an upper age limit of 30 when recruiting firefighters, according to a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling earlier this month. Colin Wolf had applied to the Fire Service shortly before his 30th birthday, but his application could not be considered until a few months after he turned 30, when it was rejected because he was too old.

The German Government had produced scientific studies from industrial and sports medicine to show that key physical capabilities deteriorate with age, so there was hard evidence that few individuals over 45 would have sufficient capacity to perform an active role in the fire service. That made the age of 30 look a defensible cut-off point, to allow a reasonable period of active service to repay the investment in training and to maintain a workforce with sufficient capability to fight fires.

What most people expected, therefore, was a decision that although such a cut-off point was directly discriminatory on grounds of age, it could be justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. But the ECJ also concluded that the upper age limit could be defended as a genuine occupational requirement, a more surprising conclusion given there appears to have been no evidence that candidates in their early 30s were likely to be significantly less fit than younger people. However, this decision is unlikely to apply that widely, since the physical requirements of most jobs are less clear cut. It contrasts with an employment tribunal decision last year which decided that an upper age limit of 36 for the recruitment of air traffic controllers could not be justified.