A serial litigant is believed to have earned thousands of pounds by bombarding employers with claims of ageism simply because they used the words “school leaver” or “recent graduate” in job advertisements.

John Berry, 54, has initiated actions against at least 60 firms over three years even though he does not apply for the jobs. He uses the government’s tribunal service website to lodge age discrimination claims against recruitment agencies and other businesses.

Lawyers say they have complained to the Ministry of Justice that the online system — which allows numerous actions to be lodged free and with minimal evidence — needs changing.

Once the firm becomes aware of the action, Berry emails his targets to warn them they can avoid an employment tribunal only by making him a “settlement” payment of up to £3,500.

One small trader said: “I am not prepared to be bullied by this man. I cannot afford to pay him. We’re in a recession and I am struggling to keep the business afloat.”

To encourage companies to settle, Berry usually opts to hold the tribunal far away from where the business is based.

He made a similar claim of age discrimination against a woman running a small business in the Midlands last year. He demanded £2,500, but lowered his price by £1,000 after she wrote back saying it would leave her struggling to pay her mortgage or feed her family.

He wrote: “I will arrange all legal closing formalities with the tribunal in time for you to have an enjoyable Xmas without this hanging over you.”

Audrey Williams, partner and head of discrimination law at the international law firm Eversheds, said: “Under current UK law a claimant will have to show that they have actually been a victim of discrimination. Simply seeing an advert is not enough.”

Berry’s claims are consistently struck out by tribunal chairmen as “misconceived” and “vexatious” but businesses can still be left with legal bills of about £9,000 because Berry ignores orders to pay costs.

He has had claims struck out in London, Exeter, Bedford, Ashford, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Watford and Southampton in the past two years.

Gordon Turner, a solicitor at Partners Employment Lawyers, said: “We have found 57 such court decisions with Mr Berry’s name [on them], but that could be just the tip of the iceberg as it does not take account of all those people who chose to settle and not fight.”

Berry, who is married and lives in a semi-detached house in Downend, Bristol, repeatedly declined to answer questions put to him by The Sunday Times at his home and by email last week. Later he replied in an email: “I like many other older job seekers are (sic) suffering age discrimination here in all these issues. You are grossly misinformed about the facts.”