Belfast Telegraph

Female solicitor gets £250k from Belfast legal firm that paid her less than male colleagues

One of Northern Ireland's best-known legal firms has been ordered to pay more than £250,000 to a solicitor who was paid less than her male colleagues
One of Northern Ireland's best-known legal firms has been ordered to pay more than £250,000 to a solicitor who was paid less than her male colleagues
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

One of Northern Ireland's best-known legal firms has been ordered to pay more than £250,000 to a solicitor who was paid less than her male colleagues.

Margaret (Peggy) Mercer took a case for equal pay against Belfast-based commercial law company C & H Jefferson Solicitors, which has since merged with the larger English firm DWF.

An industrial tribunal in Belfast heard that Mrs Mercer had been performing equal work to that of her comparators but was denied the same pay as them in contravention of the Equal Pay Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 and European Law.

Mrs Mercer was recruited by the firm as an assistant solicitor in September 1999 and has worked in the insurance defence litigation department since then.

No formal or transparent selection process was used in her selection for appointment nor was she given a written contract of employment, statement of main terms and conditions or job description.

During 2008, following several years of significant growth, the firm decided to consider promotions from associate solicitor grade to salaried partner.

Mrs Mercer and two other colleagues were promoted to salaried partner later that year.

However, the following year, when she applied for promotion to the role of an equity partner, she was told she did not meet the eligibility criteria.

Mrs Mercer did not find out about the promotions of her comparators at the time they took effect on June 1, 2009, because they had not been announced internally. Instead she learned about them around 2010 through what she described as the "office rumour mill".

When she enquired about applying for promotion to the next stage, she was informed that there would be no more movement in the firm for the foreseeable future.

Mrs Mercer flagged various issues about her pay during 2012 and 2013 and the fact that promotions were taking place without any formal or transparent selection process.

In June 2014 she informed one of firm's partners that she wanted to be paid the same salary as her male comparators and to have her bonus calculated on the same terms as theirs.

Mrs Mercer was later told that the firm had decided to defer the issue of her salary and bonus until the end of the financial year as part of a wider review of business and salaries.

Following this she lodged an internal grievance, seeking equal pay with her comparators on the ground that she was performing like work with them. Her grievance was rejected as the firm was of the view that her work as a salaried partner was "not as demanding as that of a salaried partner benefiting from a profit share arrangement".

The legal practice accepted that Mrs Mercer was receiving less remuneration than her male colleagues but did not accept that she was undertaking like work with them.

It contended that, although she and her male counterparts were all qualified solicitors, there were significant differences in the work they and Mrs Mercer were undertaking both in respect of legal work and other responsibilities.

In addition, the respondent contended that, if Mrs Mercer proved that she was undertaking like work with her comparators, there were genuine material factors which were not the difference of sex and which explained and justified any differences in pay.

The tribunal found that Mrs Mercer was employed on like work with all her comparators going back six years to June 2009.

The firm was ordered to pay her £116,542 in respect of the difference between her gross annual salary of £70,000 and the modified amount of £99,500 going forward.

She will also receive £137,000 arrears of annual salary falling six years before the date of her claim in June 2015 along with interest of £19,710 on arrears.

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