On the day the Equality Act 2010 came into force last Friday, it became apparent that there is a significant drafting error in the Act which could affect the enforceability of compromise agreements intended to settle discrimination and equal pay claims under the Act.
In order to have a qualifying compromise agreement the complainant must receive advice from an “independent adviser” about its terms and effect. The problem has arisen in relation to section 147 which sets out the requirements for an independent adviser.
The Act, in force as of 1 October, provides in Section 147(5)(d) that:
‘. . . none of the following is an independent adviser in relation to a qualifying compromise contract:
(a) a person who is a party to the contract or the complaint; and
(d) a person who is acting for a person within paragraph (a) in
relation to the contract or the complaint . . ."
The literal effect of this would be that an adviser who has acted for the employee in relation to the contract or complaint to date cannot also advise the employee on a compromise agreement to settle a claim or complaint. It would appear that this is a flaw in the drafting of this section of the Act.
How will this be interpreted?
The Courts have built up, over the years, a line of case law which deals with the interpretation of drafting errors in legislation and other ambiguities. Where the wording of the statute is plain and unambiguous, the Courts are bound to construe them in their ordinary sense, even if it leads to an absurd result or manifest injustice. However, as soon as the provision is acknowledged to be ambiguous (i.e. more than one meaning can be derived from the plain reading of the words used) the Courts may take account of any absurdity that would occur from a particular interpretation.
It appears that the wording of section 147 is plain and unambiguous in the way it is drafted. However, a reading of the explanatory notes shows that its effect is clearly not what the legislature intended. There is case law which indicates that the Courts may, in such cases, be prepared to look at all the evidence (such as Parliamentary debates recorded by Hansard) to determine what the legislation was intended to do.
We would hope that any Employment Tribunal faced with interpreting this section would agree that its meaning does not accord with the corresponding sections of other legislation such as section 203 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (which relates to the settlement of claims under that Act, such as unfair dismissal), and therefore conclude that this could not have been the Government’s intention.
How could this affect employers?
Taking a literal interpretation of section 147 of the Act could mean that a compromise agreement is not valid because the adviser was not an independent adviser within the Act. Indeed, it could mean that no claim under the Equality Act could ever be settled by way of compromise agreement since an independent advisor is not allowed to be a person (e.g. solicitor) who is “acting” for an employee in relation to the claim or complaint.
Options for employers and associated risks
As the wording of section 147 of the Act produces what can only be described as a clear error, it is hoped that Parliament will be able to resolve this shortly. Until that time, or until the Courts are required to make a declaration as to the meaning of this provision, employers are left in the uncomfortable position that there is a risk that their compromise agreements can be challenged as unenforceable.
The only watertight solution is for employers to consider using a COT3, where appropriate. This is an ACAS form for conciliating an agreement between employer and employee.
In cases where a COT3 is not appropriate, employers will have to assess the risk of continuing to use a compromise agreement. Essentially, the risk is that employers will be open to a challenge being made. However, given that the drafting error appears to be a simple one, which will not require much creativity on the part of the courts, it is hoped the risk will not be great or prolonged.
Click on the following link for the Government Equalities Office website, which contains all the latest news from the government on the Equality Act 2010 and its implementation, as well as links to the text of the Act and the Explanatory Notes.
Click on the following link for the Equality and Human Rights Commission website, which gives more information the Equality Act 2010 and the draft Codes of Practice.