January 30, 2020

Oxford University are set to appeal against an employment tribunal ruling last month that said it had broken the law when dismissing Professor Paul Ewart at the age of 69.

The prestigious university wants to keep its existing retirement policy in place instead and is considering an appeal against the decision of the employment tribunal.

Professor Ewart was Head of Atomic and Laser Physics at Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University.

In September 2017, he was dismissed from his role under the Employer Justified Retirement Age policy.

This policy was put in place by the university in an effort to encourage diversity and career progression for younger academics.

They have since changed their retirement age from 67 to 68.

The judge that oversaw the tribunal in Reading was highly critical of the policy and even went as far as to describe it as “highly discriminatory.”

He later said: “There can hardly be a greater discriminatory effect in the employment field than being dismissed simply because you hold a particular protected characteristic.”

It was claimed that the university could not justify the policy as it was applied, and Ewart had also claimed that the policy hadn’t even succeeded on its own terms at opening up applications to a broader range of people.

The university remains confident of its policy and has already won one case regarding their retirement age policies.

Last year, it was Professor John Pitcher who had brought a case against the university on the grounds of age discrimination.

They said: “The university has now reviewed in detail the decision regarding Professor Paul Ewart and Oxford’s EJRA policy.

This decision followed an earlier employment tribunal, on a separate case but of equal legal weighting, which ruled in favour of the Oxford EJRA.

The university has decided it does not accept the most recent tribunal’s ruling and will be appealing against it.

The EJRA policy remains in place and will continue to be applied as normal.”

The career path for younger academics has been tough and the policy hoped to rectify that.

However, it has long been controversial and many argue that it hasn’t actually done anything to help younger academics climb the career ladder at the university.

Many academics still working at the university strongly oppose the policy and have been vocal about that fact.

Some lawyers argue Oxford University has a legitimate point about all of this too.

Gwyn Edwards, a specialist employment lawyer at Neathouse Partners, said: “It remains lawful for an employer to have a policy that imposes a compulsory retirement age provided that such policy forms part of a considered EJRA that is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’.

In practice, such policies will only be upheld in limited case, particularly where there are genuine health and safety considerations”.

It remains to be seen how successful or unsuccessful the appeal by the university will be.

But either way, the controversy of the mandatory retirement age policy will not simply go away, even if the university succeeds in overturning this decision.

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About the author 

James Rowland

James is the Commercial Director at Neathouse Partners and regularly writes articles surrounding issues in HR & Employment Law. Outside of the office, James is a keen Cricketer, playing in the Cheshire League for Nantwich CC. He also loves going to watch his football team, Crewe Alexandra. Feel free to connect with James on LinkedIn.

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