Previously on this blog, I have noted that this year sees the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970. And I suppose it was only to be expected that one or more law firms would use such a milestone to try and drum up some business, by getting their name in the paper as experts in defending employers against equal pay claims.
So, step forward the global behemoth DLA Piper, whose public relations people secured a nice little piece in Monday’s Guardian. Under the headline “29,000 claims a year despite 50 years since Equal Pay Act”, this reveals that:
A consistently high number of workers are alleging that their employers are illegally paying them less than colleagues in similar roles, according to research [sic] released to mark the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.
The act, which established the legal principle that workers should receive equal pay for equal work [as equal pay lawyer Stefan Cross QC points out, that’s not quite right, but hey], was given royal assent on 29 May 1970.
However, 50 years on, the number of cases [they are claims, not cases, but hey] brought to employment tribunals are showing no sign of decreasing, according to research [sic] by the law firm DLA Piper.
Since the 2007-08 financial year, employment tribunals in England and Wales have received more than 368,000 complaints relating to equal pay, an average of almost 29,000 complaints a year.
Yes, the regular reader(s) of this blog – Hi @Wonklifebalance! – will recognise this as yet another classic of its kind: the old ‘Get Our Law Firm’s Name in The Papers in The Hope of Drumming-up Some Much-needed Business by Issuing a Press Release With an Eye-catching But Rubbish Story About ET Claim Numbers’ trick.
This involves your PR people finding a willing journalist who probably isn’t even aware that the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) publish detailed sets of ET claim statistics every quarter, then presenting them with your ‘research’ – which is in fact no more than a couple of autosums you’ve done in one of the HMCTS spreadsheets – on some topical employment law subject, and Bob’s your uncle! Your law firm’s name is in the paper, and employers can read how you are just the legal hotshots to go to should they face a no doubt wholly unfounded employment tribunal claim, or indeed if they just want to pay for your advice on how to avoid such a claim. Because the claim numbers are “consistently high”.
You probably think that most journalists are too smart to fall for this kind of PR trickery, but you’d be surprised. It’s an old trick, yet it works again, and again, and again. Most recently on this blog, we’ve seen it work for the law firms Fox & Partners (disability discrimination claims and mental health) and GQ Littler (sex discrimination claims and the #MeToo movement, then pregnancy discrimination claims and the #MeToo movement, and then ET waiting times.)
Anyway, back to equal pay. Have there been “more than 368,000” such claims since 2007/08? Well, yes. According to the freely-available HMCTS statistics, there were 375,225 equal pay claims between April 2007 and March 2020 (including my projection for the period January – March 2020, as the statistics for that quarter are not published until next month). Which, over the 13-year period, is an average of 28,863 claims per year.
However, as the following chart shows, those headline figures do not tell the whole story. Moreover, the assertion that equal pay claim numbers “show no sign of decreasing” is what we policy analysts call ‘utter bollox’.
Yes, what DLA Piper’s legal eagle – but statistical sparrow – Jane Hannon refers to as “the consistently high number of [equal pay ET] claims” is, well, not terribly consistent. So inconsistent is it, in fact, that the average annual number of claims in the first five years, on the left of the above chart – 42,043 – is almost twice that in the most recent five years, on the right of the chart: 22,909. And, just over the last two years, claims have fallen by 33% from the post-ET fees spike. Yet Jane Hannon sees ‘no sign [of the numbers] decreasing’. Maybe she should have gone to Specsavers.
But ‘the number of equal pay claims fell in ten of the last twelve years, and is now half what it was 13 years ago’ is not the message that DLA Piper want to get across to all the employers who might read their friendly journo’s article in the Guardian. No, they want those employers to be so worried about where that next equal pay claim might be coming from that they make a mental note of the name DLA Piper. You know, just in case. Or even get them in to provide some precautionary advice (for a fee). Because the claim numbers are ‘consistently high’.
Of course, none of this was in the minds of the steady stream of leftie employment lawyers and feminist activists who happily tweeted out the Guardian article on Monday. Fifty years of the Equal Pay Act, and still no sign of claim numbers decreasing! Yeah, we all know that. It’s an outrage, and a damning indictment of decades of misogynistic Tory misrule. Or something. Tweet sent! Extend gender pay gap reporting now!
But I’m not really sure that DLA Piper are as keen as all those happy tweeters (and me) to see the end of the scandal of unequal pay, after half a century of the Equal Pay Act. Not when they charge up to £200,000 (plus barrister fees) a time just to defend employers against unfair dismissal claims. Which tend to be shorter lived (and less complex) than equal pay claims.
No, at those rates, I suspect DLA Piper would not be completely devastated to see unequal pay claims continue for another 50 years.