Over 170 female employees of Birmingham City Council can pursue claims against their employer for denying them bonuses paid to men for equivalent work, supreme court judges have ruled.
Previously all such claims were dealt with through employment tribunals, which impose a six-month limit on claims. But this supreme court decision opens the way for this, and other equal pay cases to be dealt with in the high court, where the limit for making claims is instead six years.
The claimants, the majority of whom are care assistants, cleaners or cooks who left the council between 2004 and 2008, claim that they were unfairly denied bonuses which were awarded to workers on the same pay grade in male-dominated roles, such as grave diggers and waste collectors. Under the provisions of the Equal Pay Act, workers performing duties of equal value are eligible for the same pay - including bonuses.
In some cases the women were paid almost two-thirds less than equivalent male workers through non-receipt of bonuses. These were ostensibly tied to productivity, but in practice were awarded regardless.
A partner from Leigh Day, the firm representing the workers, said: "Birmingham council should now do the decent thing and settle the claims. They saved money by underpaying ex-workers for so many years, and so should now stop wasting taxpayers' money fighting court cases they cannot win."
The council later issued a statement saying: "Equal pay litigation until now has always been pursued in employment tribunals as these tribunals are experienced and specifically trained in dealing with such claims.
"The council is reviewing this judgement in detail before considering its options going forward and will be making no further comment at this stage."
It has been suggested that the increased window for pursuing a claim may usher in historic claims across the country. It also raises the stakes for defendants as, unlike in employment tribunals, losers in high court cases are obliged to pay the winner's legal fees.
The increased time limit is expected mainly to affect claims from the private sector where there are fewer unions to deal with cases en masse, and workers are therefore more likely to have missed the old six-month deadline.
Lisa Mayhew, an employment specialist at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner told the BBC: "Although this case originated in the public sector, today's decision may well have a significant impact on the City, where female employees may now be more willing to bide their time and bring equal pay claims to the high court.
"Equal pay claims could be viewed as more lucrative and worthwhile pursuing by staff - a worrying prospect for employers."