Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Forced Retirement

Landmark Ruling By The Supreme Court Brings Age Discrimination Back Into Focus

Subject to transitional arrangements, the abolition of the Default Retirement Age (DRA) came into force in the UK on 6th April 2011. The change in government policy made it effectively unlawful for firms to force employees to retire based solely on their age. Age UK, an organisation who campaigned extensively for the change explained that the new approach would not protect older employees against dismissal on the grounds of capability or from normal redundancies, but rather hoped it would offer them a level playing field.

The change in policy was made with the caveat that individual employers could still enforce a compulsory age for retirement providing their reasoning could be justified. However, what constituted appropriate justification for enforcing a compulsory retirement age was left somewhat unclarified. At the time, employers from across the UK stated that the new legislation was ambiguous at best and called for a clearer view of what was considered acceptable. This argument was supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) who said that deciding whether justification for enforced retirement was valid was proving confusing for employers and employees alike.

The discussion has been brought back into focus following the Supreme Court's recent ruling in the case of solicitor Leslie Seldon against his former employers, Clarkson, Wright & Jakes. Seldon claimed he was the victim of age discrimination when he was forced to retire when he reached the age of 65. The firm countered Seldon's claim by arguing that their retirement policy was justified based on their need to plan recruitment and promotion, adding that its mandatory retirement age gave its younger associates an opportunity to become a partner in the firm within a realistic time frame.

The court's ruling found that Seldon had not been discriminated against as a result of his age and agreed that, upon initial examination, the firm's reasons for imposing mandatory retirement were valid. The judges sent the case back for consideration at an employment tribunal. It is there that it will be ultimately determined whether the firm's decision to impose a mandatory retirement age for Seldon was either appropriate or necessary. Director-General of Age UK, Michelle Mitchell welcomed the ruling, calling it a "wake-up call to employers".

Ultimately though, the decision in the case has offered clarification as to when enforcing compulsory retirement is justified. Valid reasons may include:

- To promote opportunities for employment for younger people

- To allow for effective planning for recruitment of new staff

- To avoid disputes in regard to fitness for work

Although the ruling appears to give some level of power back to employers, it should not be considered a green light for enforcing a compulsory age for retirement. The outcome is quite the opposite. All justifications must be proven with particular reference to an individual business. For example, if a firm enforces a compulsory retirement age based on its need to recruit younger workers, the firm must be able to prove they have problems in this area. Furthermore, they must prove that their chosen retirement age, as opposed to a higher age, is an effective solution.

In the words of the most senior judges in the UK - "All businesses will now have to give careful consideration to what, if any, mandatory retirement rules can be justified in their particular business".




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