Extending Court-Hours: Is the Future Female?

For most of us, flexible working means improved work-life balance and the ability to combine caring responsibilities with work; responsibilities which, as much as we may wish otherwise, fall disproportionately on the female sex. For HMCTS, flexible working appears to mean something rather different.


Days ago HMCTS Chief Executive Susan Acland-Hood suggested that the Crown Courts’ backlog should be dealt with by extending court-operating hours. She dismissed solutions such as the reinstatement of previously cut sitting days to address a backlog which now sits at 41,599 outstanding cases. That backlog had already reached some 38,000 by the end of 2019. At that point HMCTS made no indication of an intention to pause the plan to further reduce sitting days and the size of the courts’ estate. It is fair to infer that HMCTS regard the pandemic as another opportunity to seek to introduce a scheme which has previously been met with overwhelming resistance from the legal profession. 

Acland-Hood’s only allusion to impact was barely detectable, and rather coyly expressed: “it takes people out of their accustomed ways of working, around which patterns and plans including things like childcare are built.” (our italics) In reality, it takes women, who bear primary caring responsibilities, out of their already overstretched “ways of working”. It makes no allowance for the fact that many female lawyers have to make plans of almost military efficiency to manage both professional and personal responsibilites. It is noteworthy that Acland-Hood did not acknowledge that the impact will be most acutely felt by the female side of the profession, and exponentially by those who bear sole caring responsibilities. 

Judicially-led working groups have, we are told, been set up to carefully consider what will work best in individual jurisdictions to ensure that changes implemented in a collaborative way. We are told that all key bodies representing legal professionals and others are involved in these groups and that detailed modelling has been shared.

The concept of extended or “flexible” operating hours is not a new one. HMCTS has been toying with the idea for at least 4 years, and the issue of the impact on female lawyers was raised at the earliest meetings with professional representatives. In April 2017, it published its Flexible Operating Hours Equality Statement; this was intended to be a live document and expressly stated that it would consider the sex-based equality impact of extended hours. It noted the concerns about the impact on work-life balance and diversity 

Perhaps surprisingly then, no account was taken of the impact flexible hours would have on maternity and pregnancy or on breastfeeding, an oversight which the HMCTS Judicial working groups could now reasonably be expected to correct. At the time of its writing the authors of the equality statement appeared to envisage monthly reviews and updates throughout the life of the flexible operating hours project. Possibly less surprisingly, neither reviews nor updates have materialised.

 
On 28 June 2019 the Evaluation Plan for Flexible Operating Hours’ Pilots was published; here sex-based “disbenefits” were identified and the potential for long term negative impact was recognised. It was also considered possible that flexible operating hours might lead to an unfair distribution of work such as Chambers allocating work to non-primary carers. In other words, working mothers may miss out on work; the female side of the profession would be disadvantaged.

It was also recognised that there could be a negative impact on professionals’ working lives which may have a longer term impact on recruitment and retention, as well as irreducible working practices such as managing preparation time and conferences out of court. Nonetheless, it was suggested that flexible hours might support a better work-life balance for those with caring responsibilities, particularly if combined with better listing practices. 

Discrimination practitioners will be alert to the obvious limitations of a hypothesis such as this, based upon an assumption that legal professionals with primary care responsibilities (statistically, predominantly female) have a partner with whom to share the load of childcare responsibilities. This assumption is one which puts single mothers in the profession at an acute disadvantage..

We pause at this point to note that listing practices have long been a source of disruption (professional and personal) and financial difficulty to practitioner. Legal professionals would be forgiven, we suggest, for viewing the promise that listing might take proper account of lawyers’ availability and commitments, particularly when those commitments are personal with some scepticism.  

The evaluation planned to interrogate how flexible hours would impact on caring arrangements and adjustments to workloads and responsibilities whilst also taking into account the cost of childcare to legal professionals. It was recognised that, in some instances, the types of impacts which flexible operating hours could have on the profession may take years to show up and that the pilots which were only to run for six months may not uncover. 

It is interesting to note that, despite the equality statement’s earlier clarity that those legal professionals most likely to be disadvantaged would be women, there is a marked disinclination throughout the evaluation to refer to this fact in unambiguous terms. Its language is oddly sexless; given the prominence of sex discrimination as a potential obstacle to the lawfulness of the scheme, the refusal to name it might be seen as a form of neuro-linguistic programming, one which is assiduously adopted by Acland-Hood in her blogpost. 

The flexible hearing pilots were concluded in May this year and we find it, yet again, surprising that no mention has been made of their evaluation. The Flexible Operating Hours report must be in train; the raw data having already been collected. In light of the justification now advanced for pursuing Flexible Operating Hours, it would be a startling oversight on the part of HMCTS to fail to update the Equality Statement to take account of the sexed impact of Covid 19. Research from the Fawcett Society and Maternity Action would be an excellent place to start.

Flexible Operating Hours could be workable, and even welcome, for those who are realistically able to reconfigure their childcare responsibilities and share the load with partners or family. But it must not work to disadvantage women who do not have such flexible personal circumstances. The retention of women in the legal profession is a matter of abiding concern. 

In terms of the rate at which the backlog of cases has grown, the public health crisis has made little significant difference. Covid-19 has not created a crisis in the justice system, although it has exposed the pre-existing crisis in those jurisdictions most heavily reliant on publicly-funded work. A ‘solution’ which was devised before the existence of the pandemic, and was designed primarily to cut costs, will do little or nothing to address the consequences of Covid-19 for the justice system, but will almost certainly exacerbate the consequences for the women upon whom it depends. 








“Cancel culture” – how should an organisation respond to a baying mob?

Image result for pitchfork mob

The scenario is now familiar: your organisation’s social media team is tagged into a Tweet that looks something like this –

Hey @yourorganisation, what do you think of your [employee / supplier’s] comments about [racism, feminism, social distancing, other wrongthink]?  Is @yourorganisation [racist, transphobic, NHS-hating] or will you [sack/cancel/condemn] your employee/supplier by the end of the day?

It is tempting for an organisation in this situation to hastily distance itself from the “offensive” statement and its maker (called the “Individual” in this article) in an attempt to call off the mob and protect the organisation’s brand.  Responses have ranged from terminating contracts[1], sacking Individuals[2] and explicitly or implicitly condemning Individuals[3].  But haste can lead to misjudgements, potentially resulting in an embarrassing climb-down or even legal action[4].  That makes choosing the right response to a “cancel call” important , particularly as the range of subjects which can trigger an outcry has expanded to include areas where nuanced disagreement is not only justified but also essential. To help organisations to keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs, we suggest a response protocol.  As ever, this article should not be considered legal advice – the needs of every organisation will vary.

  • Have a clear escalation policy.  It is too easy for a junior member of the weekend shift to be panicked into a crowd-pleasing response from which the organisation might have to embarrassingly row back.  The escalation policy should put a moratorium on any public statement being made by the organisation until staff with appropriate seniority (which may be the CEO or Chairwoman) have been consulted.
  • Remember that any public response must take account of legal responsibilities, for example under employment law or the Equality Act.  It must also avoid anything which is likely to be defamatory or any person or organisation. This is a very complicated area of law but as a starting point, if you write something which refers to a living individual and would tend to lower their reputation in the eyes of a reasonable reader, give strong consideration to alternative wording. However, the legal niceties of when something is and is not likely to be libellous (in the sense that it would give rise to a viable legal claim) are extremely complex and beyond the scope of this article. If you are in any doubt, it is worth seeking some professional advice before you respond. 
  • Put in place a draft holding statement like the one below.  This can be quickly adapted for publication once the escalation policy has been followed:
[Organisation] notes the allegations/complaints being made about [Name].  [Organisation] takes its values very seriously and these values include fair treatment of its [customers/employees/agents].  [Organisation] will look into the circumstances in more detail before taking any further action.  No further public statement will be made on this matter [until the circumstances have been investigated].
  • All team members should understand the need to refrain from further public engagement, even if customers, clients, advertisers, funders and industry bodies are tagged into the “debate”.  In rare cases it may be appropriate to make pre-emptive contact with key stakeholders to ask that they respect your position and not make any public comment on the matter.  If done at a senior level, most will understand the need to follow due process.
  • Make contact with the Individual, particularly if an employee, to tell them that no precipitate action will be taken and that any further investigation or process will allow them to be heard.  Depending on the circumstances, you might ask them to withdraw or edit their statement, at least pending further discussions.  However, we suggest you should avoid compelling or pressuring them to do so.
  • Ensure that any follow up investigation or action is conducted in accordance with internal policies and applicable law and regulation, such as the Employment Rights Act, the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, and  the ACAS Guide: Discipline and Grievances at Work.  It is surprising how often organisations are panicked into ignoring their own policies, leaving an open goal for further action.
  • Line managers and department heads should be briefed on how to respond if employees complain, as when  a group of employees at Hachette UK objected to being asked to work on JK Rowling’s new children’s story, The Ickabog, because they disagreed with her views on transgender issues.  We suggest that the holding statement above can be adapted for this purpose. 
  • Any investigation or disciplinary process is likely to involve consideration of internal policies (particularly D&I and respectful working environment policies).  You should seek as far as possible to have tailored, rather than template, policies and ensure that they correctly reflect the law (for example in correctly reproducing the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act). 
  • We also suggest that policies be drafted with an eye on the values of freedom of speech and diversity of thought and the potential for conflict of rights, such as employees’ rights to express and campaign for their political opinions.  An organisation’s policies and values should neither require Groupthink nor rule out the possibility of respectful disagreement.

Finally, social media pile-ons are unpleasant and often aggressive.  Remember if your agent, client or employee is being targeted, that this is an Individual with whom you chose to work.  Your response to a pile-on should always keep in mind the possibility that the mob may be mistaken.


[1] See the case of Maya Forstater v CGD Europe and others: 2200909/2019

[2] Gillian Phillip, a bestselling children’s author, was  sacked from the team writing under the “Erin Hunter” name after expressing support for fellow writer J. K. Rowling

[3] Actor, Laurence Fox was called a “disgrace” by Equity after expressing views about racism (or the absence thereof) in this country on Question Time .  Allison Bailey, an English barrister, was the subject of complaints after co-founding the LGB Alliance.  Without first discussing it with her, her chambers, Garden Court, tweeted that they were investigating Ms Bailey, implying that her behaviour warranted investigation .

[4] Forstater is in proceedings against her former employer, Fox won an apology from Equity, Bailey raised over £60,000 in under 24 hours to fund a claim against Garden Court and Stonewall

Why is Kasabian singer Tom Meighan not in prison?

Within 24 hours of Kasabian singer Tom Meighan’s announcement that he would be stepping back for “personal reasons,” he was at Leicester Magistrates Court pleading guilty to one count of assault by beating (common assault) on his ex-fiancee.

The details of the offence as they are reported – that he was drunk, knocked her down, attempted to strangle her, pushed her into a hamster cage and threatened her with a pallet, and most prominently, that he did all of this in front of a child – are serious.

A number of people are, quite reasonably, asking how it might be that he didn’t go to prison.

The sentencing guidelines on common assault require that the judge first consider the “offence category.”

There seems to be little doubt that in this case there was greater harm (it was described as a sustained attack) and higher culpability (strangulation is understood to signify an intention to commit greater harm than may in fact have resulted), placing it firmly into Category 1, the most serious category.

The court then moves on to the starting point and category range.

The starting point for a Category 1 offence is a high level community order, which is then adjusted up or down depending on aggravating and mitigating factors.

Aggravating factors will include that the offence was committed in the presence of a child and while under the influence of alcohol. Mitigating factors would have been remorse and his claimed commitment to addressing an alcohol dependency. Add to that the credit he is given for a guilty plea, and the adjustment is up and back down again to the starting point for a Category 1 assault.

This table sets out what is meant by a ‘low’ ‘medium’ or ‘high’ level community order. Meighan was given 200 hours unpaid work and a rehabilitation requirement, placing this at the upper end of the high level community order band, narrowly missing the custody threshold.

All that this means, of course, is that the sentence is in line with the Sentencing Guidelines. It doesn’t mean that the Sentencing Guidelines are beyond criticism.

The Centre for Women’s Justice has campaigned for non-fatal strangulation to be made a specific crime, as it is under-charged when treated as common assault, and other organisations have campaigned to make misogyny a hate crime. It may well be that sentencing in domestic abuse cases needs reform – but as of today, these are the guidelines that continue to apply, and may go some way to explaining why cases like these continue to attract non-custodial sentences.

Sex, gender and fair competition in sport

When is it lawful to exclude trans women from women’s sport?  And will it ever be unlawful – or legally risky – not to? I argue that the answers are “usually,” and “yes,” respectively.

Most competitive sports are segregated by sex: as a rule, there will be a women’s event, and a men’s event. Sportswomen and men have to compete in the event specific to their sex, and will generally be refused admission to the opposite sex’s team or event. 

Not being allowed to take part in something you want to take part in because of your sex is sex discrimination, which the Equality Act 2010 prohibits in various contexts – including many of the contexts in which people do amateur or professional sport. So how come it’s lawful to have separate men’s and women’s events at all? 

The answer is in Part 14 of the Act, the Part headed “General Exceptions.” Section 195 is headed “Sport.” 

The main work of section 195 is done by its first two subsections, supported by a definition at s.195(3).  I’ll take the definition first. 

The definition: “gender-affected activity” 

Section 195(3) defines the expression “gender-affected activity.”  If the physical strength, stamina or physique of average persons of one sex would put them at a disadvantage compared to average persons of the other, it’s a gender-affected activity.  

That will easy to apply in the vast majority of cases. The physical strength, stamina or physique of the average woman will put her at a disadvantage compared to the average man in almost all sports where muscular strength, speed, body size, reach etc. are significant. No doubt there are some borderline cases, and the odd exception; and it may even be that in some extreme endurance events women start to pull ahead[1]. But in general, if men and women compete in the same sports, relatively ordinary men will outperform even elite women. That’s why we have segregated sports: if we didn’t, in most events women would scarcely get a look in.  

Deciding whether average persons of one sex have an advantage over average persons of the other doesn’t require us to tangle with controversy about who exactly should be included when we calculate the qualities of “average persons of one sex.” Even if you include trans women in the total population of women from which you draw your average, that may shift the average a bit,[2] but it won’t make the male advantage disappear. So the great majority of sports will be gender-affected activities, and self-evidently so. (See Dr Emma Hilton’s paper here https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202005.0226/v1 if you’re not with me on “self-evidently.”) Exceptions will be sports where the differences between competitors are all about skill, built on a base level of athleticism that either sex can attain. Equestrian events are the obvious example; and sure enough, they tend not to be segregated by sex.

Subsection (1): sex discrimination 

Subsection (1) takes participation in any gender-affected sport right out of scope for all relevant prohibitions of discrimination on grounds of the  protected characteristic of sex. Nothing anyone does to anyone on grounds of sex in relation to their participation as a competitor will be unlawful sex discrimination, provided only the sport is a gender-affected activity.

Subsection (2): gender reassignment discrimination  

Subsection (2) provides a more qualified defence to gender reassignment discrimination where the sport is a “gender-affected activity” and the discrimination is necessary to fair competition or safety. 

So to decide whether it’s lawful to exclude a person with a male body from a women’s sporting event, you need to work out whether the circumstances fall under subsection (1) or (2). That means you need to know whether excluding them would be discrimination on grounds of sex, or discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment.

Which kind of discrimination is it? 

I’m going to discuss three imaginary individuals, Chris, Viv and Hilary, all of whom would like to compete in a women’s rugby match, and all of whom are turned away by the body organising the match because they have male bodies. Chris is a man, and doesn’t identify as anything else. Viv is a trans woman without a GRC. Hilary is a trans woman with a GRC. 

Chris is excluded from the match because he’s a man: it’s a straightforward case of direct sex discrimination, but rugby is a gender-affected activity, so s.195(1) makes it lawful to exclude him from the women’s match. 

Viv doesn’t have a GRC, so although she self-identifies as female, so far as the EqA is concerned she’s of the male sex. A person of the opposite sex would have been allowed to compete, so this too is direct sex discrimination, and lawful by virtue of s.195(1). No ifs or buts,[3] and no need for justification in the individual case. 

Hilary, although biologically male, is legally female, so a person of the opposite sex – a man – would have been excluded from the match just the same. So Hilary hasn’t suffered sex discrimination. But she has suffered gender reassignment discrimination, because a comparator of the same (legal) sex but not having the protected characteristic of gender reassignment – that is, a woman who was a woman by biology rather than by a process of legal deeming – wouldn’t have been excluded. So Hilary’s exclusion is lawful under s.195 only if it is necessary in order to secure fair competition or the safety of other competitors.[4]

Bearing in mind that rugby is a contact sport which even among physically well-matched opponents frequently causes injury, it seems likely that including Hilary – unless she has an unusual physique for someone who has been through male puberty – will increase the risks to her biologically female opponents. The same goes for fairness: Hilary’s male puberty will have given her an advantage that no certificate or legal status can erase. This is likely to be true in almost any case where a trans woman with a GRC wishes to compete with women in a gender-affected activity: even where safety isn’t engaged, the fact that the sport is a gender-affected activity will normally be sufficient to indicate that fairness will be undermined if a biological male is allowed to compete. 

So although conditions for the operation of the exemption look different under subsections (1) and (2), the reality is that it will normally be lawful to exclude trans women from women’s events (anyway so long as those events amount to the provision of services within section 29) whether or not they have a GRC. 

Will it ever be unlawful not to exclude trans women from women’s sport? 

Section 195 provides exceptions to general rules in various contexts prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sex and gender reassignment. On their face, they are merely permissive: they say you may discriminate, but they don’t say that you must. So some sporting bodies may take the view that they’d rather not be sued for discrimination, even if they might have a good defence under s.195, so they might as well err on the side of safety by welcoming all comers on the basis of self-identification. 

But it’s not as simple as that. I can foresee two distinct ways in which sporting clubs or bodies may lay themselves open to claims if they permit male-bodied people to compete in women’s events, and there may be others I haven’t thought of.[5] The most obvious one is negligence: in contact sports (and potentially others, like cycling, where there is a risk of accidental contact), permitting trans women to compete may make the contest not merely unfair, but also more dangerous than it ought to be. 

But in many cases even where safety isn’t engaged, there is the possibility of indirect discrimination to contend with. Indirect sex discrimination occurs where a “provision, criterion or practice” puts women at a particular disadvantage compared to men. Opening participation in sex-segregated sports to trans men and trans women (whether on the basis of self-identification, or limited to those with a GRC) will put women at a striking disadvantage compared to men: men in general have nothing to fear from trans men competing in their sports, but if trans women are allowed to compete in women’s sports, natal women are bound to lose out on team places, prize money, sponsorship, medals, and  – perhaps most importantly – participation.

An indirect discrimination claim on this basis isn’t straightforward, because of the extraordinarily broad terms in which section 195(1) is expressed: read literally, it abolishes the whole of sex discrimination law at a stroke in relation to participation in gender-affected activities. That is a result so peculiar that one feels there must be a way around it[6] – but that’s a puzzle for another day. 


[1] In truth, this caveat is only there as an excuse  for a footnote about Jasmin Paris’s outright triumph, beating all previous male and female records, in the 2019 268-mile Montane Spine Race along the Pennine Way while breast-feeding.

[2] In fact, it undoubtedly will.

[3] I am confident that this analysis is correct, but it is fair to note that the contrary view does appear to be implicit in Alex Sharpe’s article ‘Will Gender Self-Declaration Undermine Women’s Rights and Lead to an Increase in Harms?’ (Sharpe (2020) 83 (3) MLR 539-557).

[4] There’s a weirdness in the drafting of s.195. Subsection (1) obliterates the whole of sex discrimination law so far as it relates to participation in gender-affected activities. Subsection (2), in contrast, just excludes four specific sections: s.29, which prohibits discrimination in relation to the provision of services; plus sections 33-35, which relate to the disposal and management of premises. The disparity of coverage isn’t mentioned in either the EHRC Code of Practice or the explanatory note to the Act, and I’m currently baffled by it: I find it difficult to to understand why, for example, the exemption shouldn’t extend to discrimination by associations or educational institutions. If anyone can explain that to me in a comment, I shall be grateful.

[5] Again – please comment if you can think of others.

[6] At the very least, in relation to professional sport, it can’t be compatible with the Equal Treatment Directive 2006/54/EC.

Conflict of Rights

Conflicts of rights are not uncommon in discrimination and human rights cases. This is a post on how they can arise, and how they are resolved.

There are nine protected characteristics (PCs) in the Equality Act: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation. All of us have at least some of these characteristics, and sometimes those characteristics will give rise to competing claims.

The most common – or at least, the most litigated – of those conflicts of rights has been where sexual orientation meets religion or belief. For example, the case of Lilian Ladele, the registrar whose beliefs meant she was not prepared to preside over civil partnerships, and the Bulls, the Christian owners of the Chymorvah Hotel who would not accommodate a homosexual couple in a double room [1].

There has been a tendency among some lay commentators to regard the competing rights as a simple contest of morality. Religious beliefs being outmoded and sexual orientation progressive, the reasoning goes, it is proper that the “right side of history” should win.

But this is quite wrong. The resolution of a conflict of rights is not a search for the better, more progressive, or most popular cause. The courts are an arbiter neither of moral certainty nor social progress.

The first question has to be which position each party occupies. As a general rule, the service user can pick and choose their service provider, but the service provider must not discriminate against service users. There is nothing to stop a gay couple opting to shop at the greengrocers owned by another gay couple in preference to that owned by a heterosexual: this is not unlawful discrimination. However, a greengrocers must not refuse to sell vegetables to a gay couple because they are gay.

When it comes to a greengrocers, we are on fairly safe ground. It is extremely difficult to think of a scenario in which a greengrocers might withhold a bag of apples from a customer on the basis of a protected characteristic.

It becomes more complicated when it is the service itself which is in question. This was the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Ashers cake case where Christian owners of a bakery had refused to ice the message “Support Gay Marriage” onto a cake. The Court held that the service was not refused to the claimant because he was gay, but because the bakery would have refused to ice that particular message onto a cake for anybody, regardless of their sexual orientation. The owners also had the right not to be compelled to express a political view with which they disagreed.

Another issue arises where the service provider seeks to restrict a service from one group of people in order to cater to the rights of others. It is permissible to cater a service to a group who share one or more PCs, so a lesbian support group or an over 60s night, for example. Refusing to provide the service to people who do NOT have that PC is permitted by one of the exceptions to the Equality Act – contained at paragraph 30 of Schedule 3 – as long as it is “impracticable” to provide that service to people who don’t share the PC. A lesbian support group is therefore entitled to refuse service to those who are not lesbians. (There are other exceptions, particularly in relation to sex, which will be the subject of a separate post.)

However, what happens when there is a conflict between people who do share a PC? Take a hypothetical example: a lesbian support service includes lesbians who have a religious belief and those who do not. The group may not discriminate by refusing service to those who have a religious belief, but they may refuse service to someone who has persistently evangelised the merits of celibacy for homosexuals, upsetting other members, even though the refusal of service is on the basis of a PC of religion or belief. This is what is meant by a “case by case” basis.

Where a service provider does feel the need to discriminate against a service user on the basis of a PC, the question is then: is it a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim? In the example above, the legitimate aim is the ability of the wider group to continue to access the service, and would be proportionate because it does not involve a blanket ban on all those with a religious belief.

In summary,

  • Rights may conflict. This is not unusual, and it is not an automatic indication of bad faith or bad practice on the part of a service provider;
  • Resolution of a conflict of rights is not assessed on who has the ‘better’ or more progressive cause: there is no hierarchy of rights;
  • A key question is whether there any discrimination involved is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

[1] Although these cases pre-date the Equality Act 2010, essentially the same considerations apply, and as Hale LJ noted at §40 in the Bulls’ case, the slightly different formulation of the 2010 Act would not have led to a different result.

#ProtectionForAll: migrant survivors of DA excluded from Domestic Abuse Bill

Tomorrow, 6 July 2020, the Domestic Abuse Bill is back before Parliament for further consideration.

It has been heralded as a “landmark Bill” which will offer protection to all women. However, migrant women are notably excluded from it.

When migrant women are inadequately protected from provisions on domestic abuse, they can remain trapped in abusive relationships, unable to leave because of inability to access public funds and for fear of losing the right to remain in the UK. The existing provisions within the Immigration Rules are limited, allowing those on spouse visas to make an application if they have sufficient evidence of abuse, but failing to protect those in other categories, who may have entered as students, workers, or even elderly parents.

We endorse the briefing note from Southall Black Sisters sets out exactly what the legal difficulties with this are, and they have a template letter for contacting MPs.

Legally this is not a “trans rights issue” it’s a “sex rights issue”. A blog about boxes

The discussion on reform of the GRA isn’t about protection from discrimination – it’s about who comes within the classes of ‘men’ and ‘women in the Equality Act 2010.

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. 

Comparators

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.

  1. 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 

11. Sex

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: 

  1. 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)
  1. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Biography

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. 

Marriage: When Two Remain Two

Next week, six couples will take the UK government to court arguing that humanist marriage should be recognised in law. At the moment, humanist marriage ceremonies are not legally recognised, meaning that it is necessary for humanist couples either to remain legally unmarried or to have a second civil ceremony.

The legal history of marriage in the UK is interesting. Originally it was available only as a religious ceremony, in which husband and wife became a single legal entity. “When two become one,” sang the Spice Girls, in what was either a cliched reference to sex or an incisive and damning commentary on the persistence of this doctrine.

In one of the first modern legal texts, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England of 1765, a woman was understood to exist either as a femme covert or as a femme sole – a married or an unmarried woman. A femme covert was also said to be in coverture, and the principle of coverture was to establish the legal fiction that a husband and wife were one legal person:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.

As one legal being, the woman could not refuse sexual access to her husband, and he was responsible for her financially, and directed any money or property that had been hers. Furthermore, he was often responsible in law for her actions with a presumption that she acted under his direction; it was this principle that led Dickens’ Mr Bumble to describe the law as “a ass, a idiot,” and to add that “If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor.” Quite. 

However, the principle survived until the surprisingly recent past. The right of women to their own property was first, arriving in 1870 with the Married Women’s Property Act.  The obligation of a woman to provide sexual access to her husband (the entitlement of a man to sexual consent from his wife) was only abolished in the Criminal Justice Act 1994, after the case of R v R [1991] UKHL 12. Until this point it was not legally possible for a man to rape his wife, because as they were one person, he would be seeking consent not from her but from himself. The equivalent common law obligation of a man to provide financial support to his wife was yet more recent, with s.198 Equality Act 2010. An individual of either sex can still not be compelled to testify against their spouse in some criminal cases in England and Wales, and this derives from the same starting point, in that if the spouses are one legal person, the right not to self-incriminate extends to preventing their spouse incriminating them.

Within this model, sex was regarded as part of the contract of marriage, in which sex was an act of labour performed by a woman (wife) in exchange for financial benefit from a man (her husband). The hangover from this model is still alive in rape culture – the belief that expenditure on the part of a male entitles him to sexual access – and in the sale of sexual services.

It is now commonly accepted that sexual consent is not a contractual obligation marked by financial consideration at least as far as marriage goes. The arguments of the last two decades over same sex marriage compelled instead the widespread acceptance that marriage is an arrangement between equals motivated by love. The extension of the idea of a religious marriage to one based on humanist principles, which expressly rest on liberal human values, would underscore that two do not become one, but remain very much two, even in marriage.

Identity, State and Article 8

This is a post about the interplay between a person’s identity, Article 8 ECHR and the role of the state in a person’s identity.

Article 8 is a person’s right to private and family life. It is the most elusive, and most expansive, of the Articles. It reads as follows

Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

In other words, everyone has the right, although the state may interfere with it in certain circumstances if it is justified. Obvious ways where the state may interfere would be in reading text messages from a suspect in a crime, of refusing entry to the UK of a non-British spouse where the visa requirements are not met, or, currently topical, stopping people from leaving their homes without a reasonable excuse. These are all interferences with our private and family lives, but the state has a justifiable reason for doing so.

What IS this right, though? How do you define a person’s “private life?” Many have tried it, but a comprehensive definition slides through the fingers of the deftest jurist. It has been loosely grouped into three subcategories by the Council of Europe’s guide to include (i) a person’s physical, psychological or moral integrity, (ii) her privacy and (iii) her identity and autonomy. 

We know from case law that it is not restricted to a person’s “inner circle.” A person’s private life can rarely be effective within the confines of their own head or their own home; human beings are, as the House of Lords said in Huang v SSHD [2007] UKHL 11, “social animals.” It is not enough that a person has an ethnic identity or a social identity if they are not allowed to express that. Article 8 “secures to individuals a sphere within which they can freely pursue the development and fulfilment of their personality.”

Identities which are protected by Article 8 include national identity, ethnic identity, religious identity, gender identity, parental identity, and others.

The state, however, treads a fine line between lawful respect for a person’s identity and unlawful intrusion on privacy. It is obvious that where the state keeps records of minority identities, that is capable of being used to no good purpose. Hitler’s Germany is the obvious example, but in modern day Kyrgyzstan, to take another, it is the nationalists who campaign to keep ethnic identity on ID cards, not the minorities who know that it would be an invitation to discrimination. Here in the UK, the requirement that defendants state their nationality as part of their identity is reported to create ‘racialised courtrooms’ potentially breaching the UK’s obligations under Article 8 (and 6).

The protection offered by Article 8 to recognise and respect a person’s identity is vital. As state technology, databases and surveillance expand though, we must ensure that privacy is not trampled under the pretext of protecting identity.

Specialist services: permissible discrimination

Twelve years ago, Southall Black Sisters went to court – not, on this occasion to defend a woman from a violent man, but to defend themselves against the loss of funding from Ealing Council.

Ealing had funded SBS since the mid 80s, but in 2007 had decided that domestic violence provision must not be provided to cater to “all individuals irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, age, disability, resident within the Borough of Ealing experiencing domestic violence.” This pushed SBS outside the scope of funding, because they provided assistance only to BME women.

Ealing argued that this specialist service amounted essentially to discriminatory practice by SBS, and that proper equality meant a service which also catered to men and to white service users – notwithstanding that such a service would be inaccessible to the very community who needed SBS’s support. At one stage they even suggested that the name “Southall Black Sisters” was unlawful as it announced its audience in its name.

Perhaps recognising that “what about the men” was an unattractive argument, Ealing caved on the second day of the hearing, accepting that specialist service provision from a specialist source was not only lawful, but necessary. Moses LJ summarised with the judgment with the comment “Specialist services for a racial minority from a specialist source is anti-discriminatory and furthers the objectives of equality and cohesion.”

The same could be said for services provided to any other group, such as women, or gay people, and s.30 Schedule 3 Equality Act 2010 expressly permits a service to be restricted to people who share a protected characteristic.

The judgment is worth reading, and can be found here.