Two nurses have won an important discrimination claim over changes to work shifts which should remind trusts to keep equal opportunities issues firmly to the forefront when introducing new working patterns.

An employment tribunal ruled that Wiltshire Healthcare trust had discriminated against Christine Clunie and Alison Hale when it introduced an internal shift rotation system which made it impossible for them to continue working and looking after their children. The Bristol tribunal held that the trust had discriminated against the nurses as married women, but rejected a second claim of sex discrimination.

The tribunal said the trust had imposed a condition which was more difficult for married than single nurses to comply with, and that its decision to impose new rotating shifts for all nurses, regardless of childcare responsibilities, was not justifiable. The trust is reserving its decision on whether or not to appeal while it seeks a compromise agreement. If the judgement stands and a settlement can't be reached, a separate hearing will determine compensation for the two nurses. There is no ceiling for discrimination claims, and the Royal College of Nursing, which backed the claim, expects damages for injury to feelings as well as loss of earnings and pension rights. The redundancy packages accepted by the nurses would have to be set off against damages awarded.

Mrs Clunie, 40, and Mrs Hale, 34, had nearly 30 years' nursing experience between them and had worked a 12-hour night shift part-time as general nurses at Melksham Hospital in Wiltshire for 10 years. Their hours allowed them to get their children off to school, sleep during the day and report for work at 8pm. But internal rotation would have required all nurses to work both night and day shifts. The nurses accepted a redundancy package last June, a month before the new shifts came into operation. The trust said the number of wards in the hospital had been reduced from three to one, so redundancies were likely to happen regardless of the new shifts.

RCN lawyer Chris Cox said: 'Given the NHS workforce of nearly half a million women, the important thing is how you can look at making the sort of shift you're introducing family-friendly.'