Cumbria NHS

Woodcock v Cumbria Primary Care Trust is a decision of the Court of Appeal addressing the extent to which the cost factor can justify discrimination on the grounds of age. It dealt with the case of an NHS chief executive, Mr Woodcock, whose post with a PCT "disappeared" during a reorganisation. He was warned of possible redundancy, and spent some time working on other short term projects whilst informal discussions took place about finding him an alternative job. However, formal consultation was not started for several months, nor was he given the year’s notice to which he was contractually entitled. A date for a consultation meeting was finally set in July 2007. However, as Mr Woodcock’s 49th birthday in June 2007 loomed, it dawned on someone at the PCT that if he was not given notice quickly, he would still be employed at the age of 50, at which point he would be entitled to take early retirement, at vast expense to the employer. A decision was taken to give him notice without waiting for consultation to happen, to avoid this cost.

Mr Woodcock claimed unfair dismissal and age discrimination. He was successful in the unfair dismissal claim , because the PCT’s procedure fell foul of the ill-fated and now repealed compulsory dismissal procedures. The important issue in the case, however, was the question of whether the decision to bring forward giving notice to make sure he did not accrue additional age-related benefits was unlawful age discrimination, and this was what the Court of Appeal considered in depth. After considering previous case law and in particular guidance from the ECJ that employers "cannot justify discriminatory treatment 'solely' because the elimination of such treatment would involve increased costs", the court went on to say that what that means is that cost saving cannot, of itself  be a legitimate aim for the employer. In this case there were other legitimate aims: the need to reorganise, shed posts and make redundancies. The real question to be answered was whether the cost saving was a proportionate means of achieving that legitimate aim. In this case it was.