How To Reconcile The Seemingly Irreconcilable

This is a talk I gave at the FILIA conference on 17 October 2021. 

I am going to try to explore how to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable principles using an old pre Equality Act (EA) case, largely forgotten except for nerdy enthusiasts like me and many of you.

The two seemingly irreconcilable principles are

1.    Equality law requires us to treat no one less favourably on grounds related to / because of their protected characteristic.  No discrimination or stereotyping based on a person’s protected characteristic. Jobs, services etc should be available to all equally.

Against that

2.    “One size fits all” means that some people, because of their protected characteristic, are either significantly disadvantaged by this or not even able to access a service. So, we sometimes need to discriminate, as it were for the greater good, to ensure this group can access a service. It may not be all or even most of the protected class; it may only be a small sub group – but they are disadvantaged, if everyone is treated exactly the same. 

So how to reconcile this?

Well the 2008 case of Shah and Kaur v Ealing BC (better known as the Southall Black Sisters case) is a really good illustration. 

Whilst it predates the Equality Act 2010, it follows the same principles.

The case concerned Southall Black Sisters, an organisation that provided services to Asian and Afro-Caribbean women particularly in relation to domestic violence. For a while, they received substantial funding from Ealing Council. 

The Council decided in 2007 that it would in future encourage open competition by commissioning services according to agreed criteria. These included that services should be provided to ‘all individuals irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, age, disability, resident within the Borough of Ealing experiencing domestic violence’.  A one size fits all approach. 

This requirement meant that SBS would no longer be able to limit their services to Asian and Afro-Caribbean women. They sought a judicial review of this requirement.

It is well worth everyone reading Lord Justice Moses’ judgement in the High Court being short, easy to read and generally excellent.

On the second day of the hearing, Ealing BC conceded that it could not maintain its decision and sought to resist the application no longer. It agreed to continue to fund Southall Black Sisters pending a further fresh decision as to the criteria it would adopt for the commission of services to assist the victims of domestic violence. 

Recently, I met the Chief Exec of SBS Pragna Patel. I was enthusing, like a fangirl, about the case. She said it was she who was adamant they needed a written judgment to set out the legal principles clearly for everyone; and LJ Moses agreed to this.

The statutory basis on which this case was decided was the 1976 Race Relations Act (RRA), which, after the Steven Lawrence inquiry had been amended in 2000. It then included a precursor to what we know as the Public Sector Equality Duty, and was known as the Race Equality Duty.

It required:

due regard for the need –

(a) to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, and 

(b) to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups.”

This wording clearly is the basis for s149 Equality Act  

s149 Public sector equality duty (PSED)

(1)A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to—

(a)eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;

(b)advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;

(c)foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

In this case, no full equality impact assessment was undertaken until some time after these proceedings were launched. Further, the initial decision was predicated on some seriously dodgy use of statistics. Ealing BC observed that the largest proportion of domestic violence in its Borough was suffered by white European women. But that statistic was meaningless and irrational unless compared with the fact that 58 per cent of the female population of Ealing during the same period consisted of white European women. As the documents showed, 28 per cent of domestic violence was suffered by Indian, Pakistani and other Asian women. That statistic is of vital importance when one considered that those groups made up only 8.7 per cent of the population within Ealing. 

In those circumstances it was plain from the statistics available to Ealing that a very large proportion of women from that background suffered from domestic violence in comparison to white European women. 

Had Ealing appreciated that the important focus of their attention should be upon the proportion of black minority ethnic women within the borough and consideration of how high a proportion of those women suffered from domestic violence, it could never have reached the conclusion that there was no correlation between domestic violence and ethnicity. 

It really emphasised the need for good quality equality monitoring which clearly identified the protected classes and sub-classes (so women/females as a class of sex and Indian, Pakistani and other Asian women as a subclass).

Further it is clear that Ealing did not appreciate the benefits of specialist services in assisting cohesion rather than working against it. Throughout the process it is plain that Ealing believed that cohesion could only be achieved through making a grant to an organisation which would provide services equally to all within the borough. But this is not true either factually or legally. 

The EA (and RRA and Sex Discrimination Act etc) before it explicitly allows for exceptions to the general principles so that where reasonable or normally provided as such, single protected characteristic services, single sex services, separate sex services etc are legal. The commissioning of services (whether the result is to prevent this or allow these) needs to be done in way which is consistent with the PSED but also indirect discrimination, now s19 Equality Act.

19 Indirect discrimination

(1)A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if A applies to B a provision, criterion or practice which is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s.

(2)For the purposes of subsection (1), a provision, criterion or practice is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s if—

(a)A applies, or would apply, it to persons with whom B does not share the characteristic,

(b)it puts, or would put, persons with whom B shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage when compared with persons with whom B does not share it,

(c)it puts, or would put, B at that disadvantage, and

(d)A cannot show it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Essentially, if the policy of “one size fits all” means that some people, because of their protected characteristic, were now substantially disadvantaged, then it would be unlawful, unless objectively justifiable. This might mean changing the policy to that of providing a variety of different services which collectively allowed all groups who needed such a service to be provided with one appropriate to their needs. However, it need not, and sometimes should not be the same service.

The White Paper preceding the 1976 RRA called Racial Discrimination (Cm 623-4) – made it clear that the Bill should allow the provision of facilities and services to meet the special needs of particular ethnic or national groups (see paragraph 57). The Compact on Relations between Governments and the Voluntary and Community Sector in England 2008, emphasised the importance of independent, non-profit organisations run by, for and located within black minority ethnic communities. 

That sector, it said, brings distinctive value to society. Cohesion is achieved by overcoming barriers. That may require the needs of ethnic minorities to be met in a particular and focussed way. The Southall Black Sisters illustrate that principle. For example, in the second statement from Pragna Patel she identified the experience of the Southall Black Sisters in demonstrating how social services may be provided to those where a single-service provider may be reluctant to intervene in the cultural and religious affairs of a minority for fear of causing offence. Specialist services such as those provided by the Southall Black Sisters avoid those traps and help women to leave a violent relationship by using what she describes as –

“these very concepts of their culture such as honour and shame to support them in escaping violence and re-building their lives.”

She continued:

Specialist services are more effective in empowering minority women so that they can take their place in the wider society.”

So, if true for ethnic minority women in 2008, why not now? Or, more widely, for biological women?  Why not take the specialist service principles from this case and apply to particular services like trauma informed support for females who have experienced male violence? Or specialist services for other single protected characteristics?

Karen Ingala Smith wrote a very important blog about the importance of single sex services to provide for trauma informed services for women subject to male violence.

She wrote about the effect of trauma on natal women and girls from male violence causing PTSD.

After trauma, the brain can be triggered by something that would barely register for someone else, interpreting something that for many people would be unthreatening as a serious threat or danger, for example the presence of a man, particularly where not expected”

She goes on “For many women this means excluding men from their recovery space, and yes, this includes those who don’t identify as men.  Their behaviour, the likelihood that they themselves may be abusive, is not relevant. If it is not women-only, it is not trauma informed for women who have been subjected to men’s violence.”

Her evidence suggests women only spaces provide the equivalent for some biological females to the sort of specialist care provided to minority ethnic communities by Southall Black Sisters. And no reason why trans people, people over 60, disabled people etc don’t also have specialist needs that call for single protected class services.

The irony of specialist charities like Gendered Intelligence, who provide specialist services to only the trans community complaining about specialist services is not wasted on discrimination lawyers.

LJ Moses ended his judgment “..Specialist services for a racial minority from a specialist source is anti-discriminatory and furthers the objectives of equality and cohesion. I can do no better than to conclude this judgment – before giving the agreed order – by quoting the chairman of the Equalities Review in the final report Fairness and Freedom, published in 2007:

“An equal society protects and promotes equality, real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in the ways people value and would choose so that everyone can flourish. An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes the barriers that limit what people can do and can be.”

This approach should inform the way forward. Policy should be made cognisant on the effect it has on even small groups of every protected class, whether intended or otherwise. We need to be prepared to allow for, fund and defend specialist services. One size doesn’t always fit all. 

3 thoughts on “How To Reconcile The Seemingly Irreconcilable”

  1. Thank you for this , I was going to be in the audience for your talk, and had to drop out at the last minute.
    I’m now even more sorry that I missed it.
    Pragna Patel is a personal hero of mine, and I’ve cited SBS to Twitter interlocutors in the context of “you can’t have services just for ‘cis’ women, in the same way you can’t have services just for white women” exchanges more than once.
    It makes me very happy to know that you chose their case for your talk! 😀
    I hope to get the opportunity to hear you speak in person another time !

  2. Last sentence is a perfect expression of what action should be undertaken! Thank you for the whole talk!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.