The Employment Appeal Tribunal in SG Petch v English-Stewart UKEAT/0213/12 considered the sex discrimination and unfair dismissal claims that were brought by an employee who was made redundant when she returned from maternity leave.
Mrs English-Stewart went on maternity leave in February 2009. When she returned from maternity leave her employer dismissed her by reason of redundancy, explaining that her role had been absorbed by three other members of her team. Mrs English-Stewart brought sex discrimination and unfair dismissal claims which were successful in the Employment Tribunal. The EAT disagreed with the Tribunal and held that, because the work previously undertaken by a team of four was now to be managed by only three employees, the Tribunal was bound to conclude that there had been a redundancy situation. Importantly, the EAT held that if the reason for dismissal was redundancy then the dismissal could not be on the ground of maternity leave (in other words, the two are mutually exclusive) and so the discrimination claim could not succeed. The question of unfair dismissal was remitted to the Tribunal.
The EAT's conclusion in relation to the discrimination claim suggests that, where the reason or principal reason for dismissal is redundancy, the Tribunal cannot conclude that the dismissal was on the ground of maternity leave and therefore cannot be discriminatory. This is a surprising decision and is inconsistent with previous case law which states that the discriminatory reason does not need to be the sole or principal reason for the employer's actions; it only needs to have a significant influence on the outcome of a dismissal. It will be interesting to see whether the decision is appealed – we will keep you posted.