The way the issue is portrayed by lobbyists, most politicians, many corporates and the media, is legally wrong.
The “trans rights debate”, in terms of equality law, isn’t about rights for trans people not to be discriminated against or harassed unlawfully because they are trans. Properly, that right is already contained in Section 7of the Equality Act 2010, under the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” and covers people, anywhere along the “transition” route whether they have had surgery, hormones or not, and whether they even progress down that route or not. I have taken, and will, no doubt continue to take, claims about discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment, regardless of what other possible legal changes occur around the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (more of that later).
No, this is, in law, a sex-based rights argument about who comes within the class of men or women in Section 11 of the Equality Act.
But let me go back a bit. To truly understand the Equality Act 2010, you need to understand about protected characteristics, contexts and comparators. The Equality Act is complicated. It has a lot of common principles and then a lot of exceptions to make the Act workable and deal with specific needs and contexts.
Protected Characteristics (the boxes)
There are nine protected characteristics or classes (PCs). They are sex, race, religion and belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, disability, age, pregnancy and maternity, and marriage and civil partnership.
Each PC is defined in Sections 5-12 (plus 17 and 18) of the Equality Act. The protected characteristics are essentially each a legal box. To be able to bring a claim, you must first show you fit into that box legally by meeting the relevant definition in the box; whether it is the disability box, the age box or the sex box etc.
All of us fit into several of these boxes, but in law you need to show, by evidence if challenged, how you fit into the box under which you are claiming protection. So, for disability discrimination you show how you are disabled. For religion and belief, you show how you meet the relevant test for religion or non-religious belief. This preliminary jurisdictional point on whether gender identity theory (or the non-belief in it) was a protected belief was the subject of the well-known Forstater case, now under appeal.
Some boxes have also sub-dividers which I will call sub-boxes; so for sex, are you a man or a woman? For sexual orientation whether you are sexually attracted to people of the same sex, opposite sex or persons of either sex? And so on.
These sub-boxes are important for comparators, which I will explain later.
Each protected characteristic pleaded must be considered separately as the newly elected Conservative Government, which came in just as the Equality Act was passed, never enacted a clause contained in the Equality Act which would have allowed for cases on combined discrimination grounds.
The next aspect you need to understand are comparators. For some types of discrimination, you must show evidence of what the act or decision caused to happen to you by reference to the comparative treatment of another very similar person who doesn’t share your PC.
You must provide evidence regarding that other person; they will often be a real person who is in same situation but not sharing your PC (ie your box or sub-box). If there is no one to compare yourself to, you can ask the court to use a hypothetical comparator. So, a woman who claims direct sex discrimination will have to show evidence she was treated less favourably than a man – either by comparison to a real man or by comparison to how a man would have been treated in the same situation.
Importantly you cannot use someone of your own box or sub box as a comparator. So, if a woman is discriminated against compared to another woman that is not unlawful direct sex discrimination. The comparator needs to be a legal man. And this is true of other characteristics. So, someone who is sexually attracted to the same sex is compared to someone who is not attracted to the same sex.
How terms like sex are defined and in which sub box you fall is key to success or failure to even starting a discrimination claim.
Types of Discrimination, Contexts and Exceptions
There are different types of unlawful discrimination. They are direct (s13) indirect (s19), harassment (s26) victimisation s27); pregnancy and maternity discrimination (s17 and 18); discrimination arising from disability (s15) and failure to make reasonable adjustments (ss20-21).
The context of discrimination is important. If you cannot fit into any context covered by the Equality Act, you cannot bring a claim under this Act. For example, if a random person in the street racially abuses you, you cannot bring a claim under the Equality Act against them. It might be a hate crime, but this is dealt with under criminal law and not the Equality Act. Some acts (e.g. racist assault at work) may be both a claim under the Equality Act and a hate crime and dealt with very differently.
Practically all of the Equality Act is about civil, not criminal, matters. Primarily, any alleged breach is dealt with by civil action taken in the County Court, Employment Tribunal or First Tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal) depending on issues. (There are separate issues arising from the Public Sector Equality Duty and the possibility of judicial review, which are beyond the scope of this article).
Finally, and importantly, there are many, many exceptions in the Equality Act which are designed to make it workable.
How to analyse a discrimination claim?
To show how I would analyse possible discrimination, these are the steps I would take if a client was asking for advice about a possible unlawful discriminatory act.
- What is the protected characteristic my client is relying upon?
For illustrative purposes for this blog, I will look initially through a sex-based lens to show how the Act is defined; but it is important to consider possible conflict with others protected classes’ rights
Does the issue relate to PC of sex? The Act defines sex as
In relation to the protected characteristic of sex—
(a)a reference to a person who has a protected characteristic is a reference to a man or to a woman;
(b)a reference to persons who share a protected characteristic is a reference to persons of the same sex.”
Man and woman are both defined in s212(1),
“man” means a male of any age;
“woman” means a female of any age.
The Conflict With Competing Trans Rights
And this is where the conflict with competing trans rights occurs. It is essentially a dispute over which sex sub-box someone is determined by law to occupy for the purposes of sex discrimination and harassment.
This is not about the majority of trans people, who self-identify. In current law, self-identifying trans people retain their birth sex when the issue of sex discrimination arises. So, for example, a self-identified transwoman who is harassed at work would typically claim on the basis of her PC of gender reassignment, rather than a sex discrimination claim.
Legally, as well as all those who were born and “live” in their particular sex sub box of man and women there is the issue of some of the c5000 trans people currently holding Gender Recognition Certificates (GRC) in the UK.
Under Section 9 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (GRA), holding a GRC “changes” the person’s gender. But the statute is very badly worded and conflates sex and gender, when it actually means legal sex. The effect of s9 (1) of the GRA is to move a person from one sex sub box to the other.
Section 9(1) says that this is “for all purposes,” but in fact s9(3) then goes on to qualify the principle by making it subject to “provision made by this Act or any other enactment”. So, essentially this change is limited by what this and other Acts say, meaning that one can still in some circumstances distinguish biological and legal sex for some purposes. As I say, badly worded. Is it also worth commenting that subsequent statutes have not made clear when s.9(1) GRA does or does not apply.
So, this change of sub-box only applies currently to those with GRCs. However, many people, for reasons unrelated to the Equality Act, want to change this process.
All of the political, rather than legal, arguments are about whether this GRC process should have any element of “gatekeeping” (the steps in the GRA needed to obtain a GRC) or whether the process should just rely on statutory declaration so that anyone could just change their sub-box.
So much of the wider public discussion seem only to be about the impact on trans people of changing or not changing the GRC process, rather than on anyone else, whom they either ignore or dismiss as reactionary bigots.
However, as a discrimination solicitor, what I find more worrying is that there has been little or no discussion about the legal effects of such a change on sex discrimination and comparable issues like equal pay (chapter 3 Equality Act) or reporting on the badly named “gender pay gap” (The Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017). Many gender critical feminists are more focussed on the potential impact on single sex exemptions (which I share but won’t focus on here).
I can find very little good analysis even on how many people are estimated to jump from one sex sub-box to the other. Nor on what impact it will have, whether on the existing rights of those in the sub box or what happens if a party to a sex discrimination claim has changed which sex sub box they fall in. It is not even clear how many trans people there are in the UK, with the Government estimate being between 200-500,000. For Equality Act purposes, how many of this demographic are in employment or education? How many use which services? Or, if there is any industry (such as IT small businesses) where there are disproportionately higher numbers of trans people, will that have an effect on sex based equality rights in practice?
The truth is I don’t know answers to these questions; and I want someone to do the necessary objective research and analysis.
However, the #NoDebate stance of Stonewall and their allies, which has fuelled no-platforming and complaints about anyone seeking to do academic study deemed by an unseen mob not to follow a pro trans rights line has meant this otherwise normal objective enquiry and legal debate has not happened.
There are a few exceptions. For example this is an article which does attempt to do so and worth reading. But we need more academic studies to look objectively at these issues.
So back to my theoretical client. What is the next issue I have to address?
What type of discrimination is alleged? For example, is it:
“s13. Direct discrimination
(1)A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.”
So, we need to show:
- A comparator (a real person or hypothetical one, drawn from evidence showing what would have been done to a real person) of the comparator class (so if our client is a woman, her comparator is a man)
- that the alleged act, happened because of the protected characteristic
Or another example:
“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.”
A rule or policy, applied to everyone, applies to this client, which has a disadvantage to some (including this client) because of their PC compared to others; and it cannot be objectively justified.
In both direct and indirect discrimination there is reference to comparators. So, who the comparator is and which sub box they fall into is a live issue.
Next, what is the context in which this alleged discrimination took place?
The Equality Act only applies in certain contexts including work, some housing, education, some transport, provision of services to the public, some clubs and associations, trade unions, public functions, occupational pensions and insurance. The law is complicated so you cannot assume whether the Act applies or not without careful analysis. Certainly don’t listen to odd voices on Twitter saying it does not apply to you if you are self-employed (as some are covered), a contractor (as sometimes covered), or the alleged discriminator is not your employer (sometimes covered).Finally, and very importantly, does it fall into an exception in the Act? I could write another whole article on exceptions, so will leave it there.
Only after considering the client’s own evidence and jumping through all of these hoops can I say it could be unlawful discrimination. Be warned: at this point, I am yet to see the other side’s evidence which comes out as litigation proceeds, so have to review constantly the strength of the claim.
So, discrimination claims are legally complex and challenging which is probably why I enjoy this area of law.
Going back to the title of the piece, the current toxic debate about “trans rights” is actually a legal fight about the sex sub boxes and who is legally in which? If someone gets a Gender Recognition Certificate it does now and will impact on whether you can use that person as a comparator. So, changes to the GRA affect sex discrimination laws profoundly. The fact that the “gatekeeping” has kept the numbers low means it has not been an issue to date. There are not huge numbers of sex discrimination claims anyway, so the issue is largely unlitigated, as yet. In addition, the breadth of the definition of gender reassignment in the Equality Act (which does not require surgery or any treatment) means trans people have significant protection against unlawful discrimination just for being them in key areas such as work, education and access to services.
However, if the estimates of numbers of trans people are correct, then thousands or hundreds of thousands may be eligible to apply for a GRC. If the law is changed to allow for self-identification, this would increase the risk of adverse impact on sex based rights in some cases by, in practical terms changing who can and cannot be used as a legal comparator. Some people may not be able to pursue claims for direct or indirect sex discrimination because of it. Yet this change has hardly been discussed, analysed or researched.
This is why we need a proper debate.
I am a discrimination solicitor who, unusually, puts my head above the parapet on social media. I tweet openly as @AudreySuffolk about my subject. As part of my commitment to public legal education, I give my general opinion where I think people have got rights under equality law. More recently, I’ve done so with regards to the heated gender identity/trans rights versus women’s rights conflict. I tweet politely and try to assume interest and goodwill from those who correspond with me. Sadly, this is seldom replicated by some who engage with me with hostile condemnations (now known to me as the “die in a fire scum TERF” brigade). I believe that people who come under all nine protected classes have equality rights, but sometimes those rights conflict and have to be balanced, in accordance with the principles of UK Equality law
For this, I have been complained about to my employers, to our funders and to our professional network, despite these explicitly being my own thoughts and not necessarily shared. Luckily, all the organisations have shown backbone, but others have not been so fortunate.