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The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to discriminate against or treat a woman unfavourably because of her pregnancy, or because she has given birth recently, is breastfeeding or is on maternity leave. In addition, the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999 protect employees from unfair dismissal and detrimental treatment on the grounds of pregnancy, childbirth or maternity leave.
Many mothers return to work on a part-time basis after having children and employers must be very careful to ensure that they are not subjected to any unfair detriment. In one case (Fidessa plc v Lancaster), a woman won the right to substantial compensation after her return to the office was blighted by less favourable treatment.
Ms Lancaster had worked for Fidessa plc, which develops and supplies software for financial services companies, since 5 July 2010 as an engineer in the Connectivity Operations Team. On returning from maternity leave, she was made redundant after her manager reneged on an agreement that she would be permitted to leave at 5:00pm each day in order to pick up her child from nursery. A new role within the company that she could have applied for as an alternative to redundancy was subject to a requirement that she remain at work after 5:00pm.
She brought complaints of direct and indirect sex discrimination, harassment, less favourable treatment as a part-time worker and unfair dismissal. Although rejecting a number of her complaints of less favourable treatment, an Employment Tribunal (ET) found that she had suffered indirect sex discrimination, less favourable treatment and harassment – when she learned that a manager had allegedly responded to the news of her pregnancy by making a wholly inappropriate remark – as well as less favourable treatment as a part-time worker. Although the redundancy process was not a sham, the ET also ruled that her dismissal was unfair, having been tainted by discrimination.
In rejecting the company's appeal against those findings, the Employment Appeal Tribunal could detect no flaw in the ET's approach. However, the company's challenge to the ET's finding of direct sex discrimination and harassment, which related to the sexist remark said to have been made by the manager, was upheld. The reasoning in support of that finding was deficient and the issue was sent back to the same ET for reconsideration.