The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that age discrimination could already be illegal in the UK, even though the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations do not come into effect until October.
The case of Mangold v Helm, which was referred by the German courts to the ECJ, found that it was discriminatory to employ people over the age of 51 years on a fixed-term contract.
Although European Union (EU) countries have until the end of 2006 to implement age discrimination legislation, the European Directive which requires the change in the law of each individual EU country has been in place since 2000.
The ECJ decided that during this interim period, legislation should not be implemented which works in the opposite direction to the Directive. Although this was originally a German case, because it was heard by the ECJ and it pays regard to European Directives, the ruling has implications for all other EU countries.
Owen Warnock, a partner at law firm Eversheds, said: "The principle was that age discrimination is contrary to existing European law and so is already illegal. The particular thing in that case was the thing about fixed-term contracts, but it could have been anything else at all, such as people being forced to retire before 65 [years], or employers which only offer benefits to people beyond a particular age. In my view, there are now hundreds of thousands, if not millions of British employees who have suffered age discrimination, and could therefore try and bring a complaint [against employers]."