In the case of Quick –v- Cornwall Council and another, the Tribunal dismissed claims of unfair dismissal and age discrimination on the basis that conversations relating to retirement were not discriminatory.
In April 2011 the default retirement age was abolished and, under the Equality Act 2010, a person dismissed on the basis of their age is now able to bring a claim for direct age discrimination unless an employer can objectively justify that being below a certain age is an “occupational requirement” of the job.
Mrs Quick was a headmistress of a primary school in Cornwall, one of four schools which Cornwall Council had identified to form a partnership between in order to maximise resources and save costs. As part of these proposals the redeployment and/or retirement of some teachers was inevitable.
Mrs Quick took a period of absence from work between July 2007 and February 2008 due to a depressive illness and commenced a phased return to work until April 2008 when she resumed her full role. Allegations were made against Mrs Quick between September 2009 and April 2010 which caused a further depressive illness and on 4 January 2010, Mrs Quick went on sick leave and did not return.
An investigation took place in May 2011 and a disciplinary hearing was held in the following July where it was decided that Mrs Quick would be dismissed as a result of serious misconduct and an irretrievable breakdown in trust between the parties. Mrs Quick unsuccessfully appealed the decision to dismiss her and then brought a claim in the Tribunal for unfair dismissal, direct age discrimination, bullying and harassment. Mrs Quick alleged that the direct age discrimination included:
- A colleague asking her if she had any plans to retire
- A discussion with the school’s chair of governors in which Mrs Quick’s retirement was discussed
- A comment in an email from the chair of governors to the Senior Education Improvement Officer of Cornwall Council stating “we will be observing teaching in both classes, including her, She’s 59.”
- An email chain between the chair of governors and one of the School Improvement Partners which discussed the notice Mrs Quick would be required to give if she intended to retire
- A comment from the Senior Education Improvement Officer of Cornwall Council that “too many people carry on after they should have retired”.
The Tribunal dismissed the claim for age discrimination and stated it was sensible for the school to be considering the retirement of head teachers in light of the planned restructuring/amalgamation of the four schools. The Tribunal noted that Mrs Quick had herself also made tentative enquiries about her retirement.
The allegations made against the Chair of Governors were found to be “sensible succession planning” rather than unfavourable treatment.
In relation to the conversation Mrs Quick had with a colleague, the Tribunal found that as the colleague was the only other qualified teacher at the school it was clear that Mrs Quick’s plans would affect his own career progression and aspirations therefore this was not evidence of less favourable treatment.
Whilst the facts of this case and the allegations made are specific, this will provide guidance for employers that should they find themselves in a position that they are required to restructure their business, conversations had around retirement should not amount to age discrimination. It should be borne in mind however that regular discussions around retirement may collectively amount to discrimination if they are deemed to be putting pressure on the employee to leave.