“Women need a voice”: The lawyers giving free advice on equal pay claims

The Fawcett Society and Leigh Day run a free legal advice service for women facing equal pay issues. We spoke to Paula Lee, the lawyer who runs the service.

Paula Lee

 

In 2017, Carrie Gracie, then the BBC’s China editor, found out that she was being paid far less than male colleagues with equally senior jobs. While she was earning £134,000 a year, the BBC’s US editor and Middle East editor were both earning over £100,000 more than her.

Gracie’s equal pay challenge to the BBC, which successfully resulted in a settlement, dominated the news for weeks. But what is perhaps less well-known is what she did with her settlement payout – she donated it to the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights charity, to set up a free legal advice service for women facing equal pay issues. Since early 2021, the Fawcett Society has worked with the law firm Leigh Day to run this service.

“I have an enormous sense of pride in doing this…there is a significant equal pay problem in this country and I think women need to find a voice,” says Paula Lee (pictured above), a partner at Leigh Day who heads up the Equal Pay Advice Service (EPAS).

“To be able to offer our services for free to the people who use it, it’s just brilliant…Legal advice is really expensive [and] access to justice is a real issue.”

“A fiendishly complex area of law”

Illustration showing man and woman on equal pay

EPAS is for women who have concerns about equal pay, whose gross income is £30,000 or less per year, and who do not have access to expert legal advice. Women who meet these criteria can get up to 10 hours of free legal advice.

Lee and her team have helped women in sectors such as IT and research & development to get equal pay to their male counterparts. In one success story, three women in a research & development team worked together on a complaint, reaching an agreement with their employer where they each got back-pay of £5,000 plus a salary increase of £2,000.

Equal pay issues arise when two colleagues are paid different amounts, despite doing the same or equatable work for the same employer. Equal pay has come under the spotlight in recent years, with Gracie and other female journalists successfully challenging the BBC, as well as the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Asda’s mostly female retail staff last year. Female filmstars such as Claire Foy and Sienna Miller have also started speaking openly about being paid less for leading roles than male co-stars (Miller’s co-star Chadwick Boseman famously donated a chunk of his pay to boost hers).

But defining “equal work” often makes equal pay negotiations tricky – it can be complex to compare two workers in different departments, even if they have similar levels of seniority and manage similar budgets. Lee says this is why EPAS is a vital service. Since the start of 2021, 37 people have registered with EPAS and Lee urges anyone in need to contact them.

“Equal pay is a fiendishly complex area of law…the words ‘equal pay for equal work’ are so easy to say, but what sits behind that is hideous [in terms of complexity],” she says. “Airing your concerns with someone who understands this area of law can be quite helpful.”

“Standing up for ourselves is powerful”

EPAS’ team of five lawyers helps people to assess if they’re facing an equal pay issue, and then helps people to approach their employer. They can help people to prepare for negotiations and draft letters. They can also send letters on the firm’s letterhead if that helps to get a result.

EPAS specifically tries to help women reach an agreement with their employer without having to go to a tribunal or a court. Lee explains that this is because litigation is costly, stressful, and time-consuming. 

“[Litigation] has a very valuable purpose in society, but it’s just not something to ever be entered into lightly…Litigation is the very last resort,” she says. Many employers are often simply unaware of equal pay issues amongst their staff, while others do have justifiable reasons for different pay packets, she adds. 

Lee urges women to speak up even if they feel nervous about rocking the boat. She points out that it is illegal for employers to treat someone poorly for raising an equal pay complaint, and that quietly staying in a job where you feel unfairly treated can deeply affect you over time. “It doesn’t go away, it just gnaws at you,” she says.

“Sometimes just standing up for ourselves is quite powerful, on so many levels.”



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