Cash-strapped Devon and Cornwall Police could face a multi-million pound compensation bill after being found to have discriminated against older officers it forced to retire.
Officers launched legal claims against the force in 2011 after the former police authority opted to invoke a rarely-used pensions clause to make them retire after 30 years’ service.
The authority, which later reversed the move, said it was the only means by which the force could hope to meet the £51 million in cuts imposed by the Government in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review.
More than 250 officers, including others Nottinghamshire, West Midlands, North Wales and South Wales, last week won their claim for indirect age discrimination.
The panel of three employment judges ruled that the measure was not justified saying it was “not a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.
While the force are considering whether to appeal, one of the solicitors involved in the case warned the compensation bill could leave some forces with a budget “black hole”.
Will Burrows, from Lewis Hymanson Small, corrwho represented former officers of superintendent rank and above, said: “The police forces involved in this ruling could unfortunately face significant financial problems, particularly in the case of Nottinghamshire and Devon and Cornwall.
“This is a situation that everyone involved in the case wished to avoid from the start. It’s almost impossible to calculate the exact costs facing each force, but each police officer’s claim could reach tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, or even more.”
In all, 124 officers from Devon and Cornwall were involved in the claim. If compensation was set at £10,000 that would leave Devon and Cornwall facing a payout of £1.24 million. At the upper end of Mr Burrows estimate, £100,000, it could reach £12.4 million.
Employment Tribunal statistics for 2011-12, the latest available, show the average award in age discrimination cases was £19,327. At that rate the case could cost Devon and Cornwall Police almost £2.4 million, plus costs.
In the meantime, the force is looking at having to save another £27 million over the next four years and has announced departmental reviews which could see more civilian posts axed.
Rebecca Townsend, employment partner at Rebian corr Solicitors which represented Devon and Cornwall officers, said: “This has been a lengthy and complex case in which many key aspects of the law relating to indirect discrimination have been the subject of detailed legal argument.
“Although our clients are delighted with the decision it must be remembered that the decision of the respective forces to dispense with their services has had a lasting impact on police officers who enjoyed their work and where able to offer a high level of expertise to the communities they served.
“For them this decision does little to reverse the anxiety these officers have experienced by the implementation of the A19 but does provide a declaration of the mistreatment they received at the hands of the force.”
The five police forces have 42 days to appeal the decision.
After the tribunal ruling, Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said using Regulation A19 had to be considered “to ensure that the force continued to provide an efficient and effective policing service”.
He added: “This has been a lengthy hearing during which all parties involved have had an opportunity to explore the complicated legal issues that surround this regulation and the particular circumstances of each of the forces involved in the litigation.
“Prior to A19, along with other forces, we sought expert legal advice and from the very outset were confident our use of the regulation was lawful, fair and proportionate.
“We are considering the decision of the employment tribunal and will reflect and take advice on whether or not an appeal is appropriate. We are therefore unable to comment further at this time.”