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High Court hearing for retirement age case

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A case contesting the right of employers to force workers to retire at 65 has reached the High Court.

The aim of the challenge, which has been brought by charities Age Concern and Help the Aged, is to establish whether the UK’s default retirement age is actually legal.

In an earlier hearing at the European Court of Justice, judges ruled that the entitlement of UK employers to end a worker’s employment at 65 without redundancy pay was in compliance with EU law if the decision had a “legitimate aim” linked to social or employment policy.

However, the judges also said that it was a matter for the UK’s High Court to rule whether or not the default retirement age was justified.

The charities are arguing that the law is in breach of the EU’s Equal Treatment at Work Directive.

Currently, there are some 260 separate actions pending in tribunals brought by employees who were obliged to retire at 65 even though they wanted to continue working.

It is estimated that many thousands more will file compensation claims if the High Court decides that compulsory retirement at 65 is not justifiable.

Should the ruling go in favour of the charitites then businesses and organisations may face having to argue the case for any automatic retirement age policies they run and to justify the retirement of each individual employee in order to avoid claims for compensation.

Recently, the government announced that it was bringing forward a review of the default retirement age from 2011 to next year.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director for Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: “We have heard a lot from government over the last few days about the retirement age, but ministers have dragged their heels for years on this issue, forcing us to challenge it in the UK courts on behalf of older people across the country.

“The promised review in 2010 is a step in the right direction, but it does not come soon enough for thousands of people reaching 65 now who desperately need to carry on working to pay the bills, boost their pensions or simply because they want to.”

Under existing law, employees have the right to request that they be allowed to carry on working, and employers must consider such requests.

Employers’ group, the CBI, has consistently defended the default retirement age, saying it enables firms to plan for the future.

Katja Hall, the CBI’s director of HR policy, commented: “Anyone can ask to work beyond the age of 65, and our research shows 81 per cent of these requests are accepted. Companies don’t want to lose good people, whatever their age.”

But Ms Hall added: “In certain jobs, often physically demanding ones, working beyond the age of 65 just isn’t possible for some people. Companies with small numbers of staff have particular problems adapting jobs to the needs of older workers. Without a workable alternative, it would be wrong to scrap the current arrangements.”