Northern Ireland

Equality Commission 'must pay £8,000 for sex discrimination'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe tribunal found the commission had indirectly broken sex discrimination laws, albeit unintentionally

A solicitor has been awarded £8,000 after she won a sex discrimination case against her employer, the Equality Commission.

Elizabeth Kennedy was not allowed to return to her permanent job after she took a five-year career break.

The tribunal found the commission had indirectly broken sex discrimination laws, albeit unintentionally.

It said the commission's actions were "grossly unfair" and the injury to Ms Kennedy's feelings "significant".

She was awarded £7,500 plus £637 in interest, as compensation.

The tribunal found that the commission was responsible for "unlawful, indirect sex discrimination".

Ms Kennedy, who is from Hillsborough, County Down, worked as a legal officer with the commission.

She began her career break in January 2009 and renewed this four times up to the maximum five years, under the commission's career break policy.

She told her employer in September 2013 that she intended to return to work the following January. However, she was not told until December 2013 that she could not return.

She also found out that her position had been filled on a permanent basis by a man, just two or three months after her career break had begun.

The tribunal said the commission had known since at least 2009 that people on career breaks would not be permitted to return.

'Issue unclear'

In its judgement, it said it seemed "extraordinary, as a matter of basic fairness, that this was not made plain to the claimant" on 23 September 2013 when she confirmed her intention to return to work.

It was only in December that she was told it was "unlikely" that a vacancy could be identified or funded to enable her return.

In its decision, the tribunal said that both the commission and the public service union Nipsa had "left an important issue unclear".

The tribunal said it was "clear that the policy was written on the basis that a 'career break' meant what it said on the tin, ie : a break with a departure and a return".

"It was not written on the basis that the acceptance of a career break was in fact a resignation, with no more than a limited form of preferential reinstatement if a suitable vacancy were ever to arise at some indeterminate point in the future," the tribunal said.

It said the Equality Commission's actions were unfair. However, it also said the actions were unintentional and that Ms Kennedy had not argued that any indirect discrimination was intentional.

Awarding the sum of money, the tribunal recommended that the Equality Commission review the operation and wording of its career break policy.

In a statement, the Equality Commission said it was disappointed that the tribunal found aspects of its career break policy to be indirectly discriminatory.

"The career break policy was agreed with the employees' trade union in 2001," the commission added.

"It was a policy aimed at providing greater flexibility for employees.

"Since then a considerable number of employees have benefitted from the policy. The changing financial position and staffing reductions over the past five years resulted in difficulties for the commission in facilitating a return to work for staff at the end of the career breaks."

More on this story