Twelve days have been set aside for a preliminary hearing in November, to consider the validity of claims from workers in education, health, banking, and the civil service. A successful action could lay the ground for settlements running into millions of pounds.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers, and NATFHE, the lecturers's union, have put forward a provisional list of more than 20 colleges and other institutions for consideration, but this is likely to be whittled down to three or four by the time the case goes to tribunal, according to Norton Rose solicitors, who will be acting for the Colleges' Employers' Forum.
The only non-CEF member on the provisional list, Solihull College, could be left with a hefty legal bill if it is one of those selected for the hearing. Principal Colin Flint said that plans to form an independent legal advice service for colleges, reported in last week's TES, were still in the embryonic stage but that a number of colleges had expressed interest. "NATFHE would be crazy to target us," he said, considering that the college had negotiated a contract with the union independently of the CEF.
The test case follows a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year that excluding part-timers from pension rights could constitute indirect sex discrimination, given that most are women.
At issue is the right of part-time lecturers to be allowed entry into the Teachers' Superannuation Scheme, backdated to 1976, when current sex discrimination laws were introduced. The CEF will be arguing that retrospective benefits should carry the two-year limit set out in the 1970 Equal Pay Act.
Part-time lecturers have been able to join the TSS since May 1.
Several legal points concerning time limits, the right of male employees to bring claims, and the payment of interest, tax and NI contributions by employers will also be considered. If retrospection is allowed, LEAs could become liable to pay backdated pension contributions to staff employed before college incorporation.
CEF chief executive Roger Ward, who has enlisted leading barrister Patrick Elias, estimates the cost of the test case alone could run to Pounds 100, 000. "It is enormously complicated," he said. "But we will succeed. The implications of failing are too horrendous to consider."
NATFHE pensions and legal officer Joan Gordon said that hundreds of part-time and former part-time lecturers had responded to letters encouraging them to take action. "The industrial tribunals have been inundated with applications, " she said, "but the implications are much wider than education."