On 6 April 2011 the default retirement age was abolished. The result of this was that employers were no longer able to compulsorily retire employees unless a retirement age could be objectively justified.
This change in the law led many commentators to speculate that it would be age discriminatory even to have discussions with employees about their plans for retirement.
In the recent decision of Quick v Cornwall Council, the Employment Tribunal was called on to consider in what circumstances discussions about retirement will be discriminatory.
Mrs Quick was the headmistress of a primary school in Cornwall. Since 2006 there had been a proposal to amalgamate / restructure local schools to reduce costs. As part of these proposals it was considered that fewer teachers might be required.
Following her dismissal for misconduct in 2011, Mrs Quick brought claims for unfair dismissal and age discrimination. In relation to the age discriminatory element of her claim she relied upon a number of references that had been made to her retirement including:
- A colleague asking if she had any plans to retire;
- A discussion between her and the chair of governors regarding her retirement; and
- A comment from the Senior Education Improvement Officer that “too many people carry on after they should have retired”.
The Tribunal did not uphold Mrs Quick’s complaint of age discrimination. In the context of the proposed amalgamation of local schools the Tribunal said that it was sensible for the school to discuss possible retirement as part of the succession planning process. They noted in particular that as part of this Mrs Quick had herself made enquiries about retirement.
As a result the Tribunal concluded that Mrs Quick had not been subjected to less favourable treatment on the grounds of her age.
This case should provide reassurance to employers wishing to discuss retirement plans with employees. In circumstances where succession planning is important, asking employees about their retirement plans is unlikely to be discriminatory. Clearly however, if employees are regularly questioned about retirement, the effect of which is to create a pressure to leave, this may amount to discrimination. As such the matter of retirement should be handled sensitively in every case.