“You say objective, I say subjective”, what is the legal test? A blog about harassment and protected beliefs

Before and after the recent Forstater v CGD (2021)  case, there was a torrent of speculative commentary about what this meant both for trans people and gender critical people when it came to harassment under section 26 Equality Act 2010. 

On 27th April 2021, barrister Robin Moira White wrote in the Independent: 

It will mean, for example, that a person will be permitted to misgender a trans work colleague, indeed be legally protected if they do so. This puts employers in an impossible position where one employee is entitled to harass another, likely making the employer liable to the harassed employee for discrimination. It is both morally wrong and practically unworkable: employers will not be able to meet their duty of making workplaces safe to work in or public spaces safe to visit. “

Thankfully, this pessimistic prediction was proved wrong. The Employment Appeal Tribunal stressed that its judgment didn’t mean open season for people to harass trans people. It could have added “and the same goes for gender critical people.” 

In practice, what Forstater established was that both gender identity theory and gender critical feminism are protected as beliefs under s10 EA.

But what does that mean in practice regarding protection against harassment? Is “misgendering” (calling a transperson by a pronoun that signifies their biological sex) or calling someone a TERF (an offensive term to many)  or “bigot” unlawful harassment?

The classic and annoying lawyers’ answer… it depends! 

So how to decide if something is unlawful harassment?

First of all, some important caveats: I am talking about civil law, not criminal law. This isn’t about hate crime or other forms of harassment (say under the Protection from Harassment Act). 

This piece is not about whether it is right or wrong that something is considered unlawful harassment, but my best guess about what a court or Employment Tribunal will determine.

Context

This guidance is not relevant in all situations, only for those set out in the Equality Act. So it applies in work, education, political parties, larger membership organisations, some transport and some housing. It doesn’t apply between private people, say in the streets, unless one of them is working. That may be covered by other law, but is outside the scope of this blog. S29(8) states that, with regard to services to the public and public functions , neither the protected characteristics of religion and belief and sexual orientation are covered by the sections on harassment. ‘Harassing’ conduct related to religion or belief or sexual orientation which causes a detriment is covered by direct discrimination protection.

Which protected characteristics are covered?

Age, disability, race, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and religion or belief are all protected against unlawful harassment. Marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity, are not – although the latter is effectively covered against harassment via a different route in s17 and 18 Equality Act.

What does the law say ?

The Equality Act says the following:

26 Harassment

(1)A person (A) harasses another (B) if—

(a)A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect of—

(i)violating B’s dignity, or

(ii)creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.

(2)A also harasses B if—

(a)A engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, and

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect referred to in subsection (1)(b).

(3)A also harasses B if—

(a)A or another person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or that is related to gender reassignment or sex,

(b)the conduct has the purpose or effect referred to in subsection (1)(b), and

(c)because of B’s rejection of or submission to the conduct, A treats B less favourably than A would treat B if B had not rejected or submitted to the conduct.”

So let’s break it down:

Unwanted conduct” means the person alleging harassment didn’t consent to it. It is aimed at avoiding liability for genuine give-and-take banter. This does not mean the sort of bad defence used by obvious harassers to seek to exclude insults,  but rather a hug between old friends, affection between consenting romantic partners, or a genuinely equal debate about politics in the canteen between colleagues, for example. 

Related to a protected characteristic” means you don’t have to have that characteristic to be harassed; but there must be a link between the words, actions etc and the protected characteristic. This sort of harassment isn’t about generic bullying.

Conduct has the purpose or effect”. If the evidence shows the alleged harasser intended for the words or conduct to be harassing (usually determined as such because it is obvious for those words or conduct were the sort purposefully used to harass), that is then immediately proved.

If, instead, it is argued that, whether or not it was intended, the effect was harassing, then there is a further test in s26(4) Equality Act, as follows:

“(4) In deciding whether conduct has the effect referred to, each of the following must be taken into account—

(a)the perception of B [person alleging harassment];

(b)the other circumstances of the case;

(c)whether it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.”

In legal terms this is known as an objective, subjective test. The test is not just whether the claimant perceived harassment, but whether that is a reasonable perception. A person who is frequently late to work may feel harassed by their boss reminding them not to be late on consecutive days, but it would not be reasonable for the reminders to amount to harassment. On the other hand, a person who has ADHD but is rarely late may well be harassed by an employer singling them out every evening with the words “Remember to be on time tomorrow – we know how ditzy you ADHDers are!” 

Violating dignity etc”

 This is exactly as described.. A court or tribunal needs to be satisfied that one of these descriptors could be applied to the situation evidenced.

In this piece I am not going to discuss s26(2) and (3), but it is worth noting the wording.

Very case specific

The result of this is that there are no glib equations to provide a bright line between conduct which is and is not harassment.   It really depends on context and framing.

In the context of the gender critical/gender identity context, my predictions are that: 

1.    Simply wearing a rainbow lanyard or putting one’s own preferred pronouns in your emails at work will not amount to harassing someone else;  but reporting someone to management who simply chooses not to, due to their beliefs, might well be harassment, 

2.    Setting up a Gender Critical or Gender Studies Research Group will likely not be an act of harassment; but campaigning against colleagues doing so might be harassment.

3.    Responding politely with one’s own views to a consultation about single sex or mixed gender facilities will not be harassment; indeed complaining to management about someone about their polite answer might well be. In the case of  Mbuyi v Newpark Childcare (2015), the Employment Tribual found in favour of Sarah Mbuyi, an evangelical Christian, who was dismissed by her employer, Newpark Childcare, for harassment following a discussion with a lesbian colleague in which Mbuyi said that homosexuality was a sin. The tribunal said that Mbuyi had not harassed her colleague as there was no evidence of unwanted conduct, because Mbuyi had given her views after being asked for them. 

4.  Calling a colleague a TERF or intentionally misgendering them may well be held to be harassment. This is distinct from accidental misgendering, because the choice of pronoun is unknown to the speaker or because the speaker’s disability causes them not to remember such things;

5. Discussing politely and personally on social media whether the law should be changed to self ID is likely not to be, unless there is evidence of risk that this may lead to actual discrimination or harassment. Some support for this contention is given in two cases not directly relating to harassment but addressing the risk of that happening going forward. The Court of Appeal in Ngole v Sheffield University 2019 (a case concerning an evangelical Christian student social worker who was expelled from his university course after  expressing “Biblical views” on social media about homosexuality) said at para 129  “such a blanket ban on the freedom of expression of those who may be called “traditional believers” cannot be proportionate” . It was notable that the University had accepted there was no evidence of intention to discriminate against gay people by Ngole. This is in contrast to Dr Mackereth in DWP v Mackereth (2019) who made it clear that his particular Christian belief meant that he did have an issue using pronouns inconsistent with the service user’s birth gender [sic]. It later became clear that it also extended to using a title or style of address, Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss etc inconsistent with the service user’s birth gender [sic]. Dr Mackereth failed in his claim. Whilst it is under appeal, my view is that an appeal is unlikely to succeed.

5.   Proselyting to colleagues or service users about one’s gender critical or gender identity beliefs is likely to be harassment, in a similar way  to cases involving religious proselytising like Haye v Lewisham BC (2010) and Amachree v Wandsworth Borough Council (2010)) .

In each of these cases, the judge considered the facts carefully and conducted a balancing exercise of the basis of the facts to determine whether the employer had properly considered the employee’s right to manifest their belief. In those cases where the employer’s decision was upheld, it was generally because of the actual discriminatory impact of the employee’s actions on other people. 

These cases also demonstrate that similar issues can be dealt with through good employer practice and employees understand what is expected of them. An employer can have a policy which places limits on discussions about religion or belief at work, but any restrictions on freedom of speech or manifesting religion or belief must be proportionate to achieving aims like protecting the rights of others or the reputation of the employer. 

So if confronted with a complaint or grievance by someone alleging unlawful harassment, what sort of questions should you ask to determine if conduct amounts to harassment?

1.    What was the context in which the alleged conduct occurred?

2.    What does the complainant say happened?

3.    What evidence is there of the consequences of the conduct on the complainant or others?

4.    Why do they say it has the effect they claim? This goes to context. 

5.    What does the respondent  say happened?

6.    What are the relative power positions of the two?

7.    What do any witnesses say?

8.    Is there any other relevant evidence?

9.    What do your office policies say about social media use, and what is deemed misconduct or discriminatory behaviour? Do those policies balance freedom of speech, belief and private life with legitimate employer concerns like risk of harassment of colleagues or service users?

10. Have there been previous warnings against this conduct and when?

Having gathered all this information, and weighed up whose evidence is more credible, it is for the decision maker to decide whether each of the allegations are more likely than not to have happened, and if so, to determine sanction. 

Employers and service providers also need to check their policies and Equality and Diversity training materials to ensure there is no harassing content in there. 

In summary, there is no simple equation of  X=harassment but Y does not. Ultimately, it is a fact-specific exercise, where freedoms of speech and belief are balanced against the necessity to protect from harassment in the workplace.

To Boldly Go – Why “going beyond the law” risks unlawful discrimination

Recently I have been seeing a common thread amongst equality activists. The idea of “going beyond the law”.

The implication is we can do more, be bolder and more generous to improve the lot of a particular minority. An  activist’s dream. 

It also suggests the law is outdated and we shouldn’t wait for Parliament to recognise what the law should be. And there is something in it: it was always open to good employers to refrain voluntarily from discriminating on grounds of sex, race, sexual orientation etc before the law demanded that of them.  

However, this may be a trap for the unwary.

Take the situation at Essex University culminating in the Reindorf Report and a subsequent open letter condemning it.

The Reindorf Report was commissioned by Essex University following complaints by two external invited speakers disinvited after complaints from trans activists due to their alleged gender critical beliefs. It is written by an independent specialist discrimination barrister. It sets out clearly (from para 140), the relevant law and regulatory framework concerning the conflict between trans activists and gender critical feminists. Whilst primarily about universities and academic freedom, it has useful transferable messages about conflict of rights, the potential for indirect sex discrimination, the threshold for determining unlawful harassment and serious concerns about the role of Stonewall.

A group of academics and students from the University and elsewhere promptly responded in the form of an Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor. Some are from the Law School and others are human rights academics. It is attached here: https://twitter.com/SVPhillimore/status/1395429598331129861/photo/1

It states “It is entirely appropriate for an academic institution to set an example to wider society by going above and beyond the baseline requirement for rights protection”

It seems an attractive idea. We can do better, go further, give greater rights. What is the harm?

What is missing from the letter is any recognition of the existence of, let alone balancing a conflict of rights. It is simply not mentioned.

The rights of the visiting speakers, let alone other people, especially women with gender critical beliefs at Essex University are wholly absent from the letter. It is as if they don’t exist. Given the context in which the Reindorf Report was written (including a reference to  a flyer circulated in the University bearing an image of a cartoon character pointing a gun and the words “SHUT THE F*** UP, TERF”) this is shocking.

 The letter approaches its subject from the exclusive perspective of one group of people with no recognition that the rights of any other group might be engaged. 

Yet in equality law, recognising and balancing conflicts of rights is bread and butter practice. There is plenty of caselaw from Ladele v Islington BC https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2009/1357.html to Lee v Ashers Bakery Case https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2017-0020.html .

Even Prof Sharon Cowen, whose very pro trans views are well known, (in a paper she co-wrote with Sean Morris entitled “Should ‘Gender Critical’ Views about Trans People be Protected in the Workplace? Reconciling Conflicting Human Rights and Discrimination Claims under the Equality Act 2010 “ at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3849970), recognises the legal conflict of rights. In one of the few paragraphs I do agree with, they state “We conclude that the courts should maintain a flexible approach, while developing coherent principles, that are applied consistently, for balancing and reconciling conflicting rights. This is important in the current context in which there is an ongoing debate, particularly in the discrimination and human rights context, about the extent to which trans people’s rights are adequately protected and whether protecting such rights infringes the rights of others. “

Even in ECHR law, there is recognition that whilst you can go beyond the law it cannot be at the expense of others’ rights.

As barrister Emma Stuart King states “It goes back to the positive/negative obligations distinction. Under the EA, there is only an obligation to refrain from discriminatory conduct, the only exception being in the case of disability where there are positive obligations to take action to prevent discriminatory impact.

Under ECHR case law, the threshold for requiring positive action is always set higher than that for negative obligations. And this is on a state level- where those positive actions are required by individuals you not only have to very carefully and clearly set them out but this can only be done where the required measures don’t negatively affect the rights of others. There really is no precedent in law for the types of positive obligations that are called for.”

I have previously  set out my thoughts on how policy makers make an environment supportive of one group without inadvertently making it worse for another.

There is scope for positive action, for example at s158 and s159 Equality Act. But it has to be applied very appropriately and carefully as Cheshire Police learned found out to their cost when it was determined that their well meaning use of s159 to recruit more Black and Minority Ethnic Officers  to address long-standing underrepresentation was flawed and discriminated against a white man. 

So when you see the exhortation to “go beyond the law” as a suggestion when making policy, think carefully, for it is a minefield for the unwary. Law is often written as it is for good reason.

Do Right, Fear No One (except possibly Stonewall)

Garden Court Chambers is a prominent and highly regarded set of barristers’ chambers based in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Garden Court prides itself on its “progressive” attitude to law: for example, its members will defend but not prosecute, in common with other “progressive” sets. Its motto, “Do right, fear no one,” reflects its stated commitment to “fighting your corner, no matter how formidable the opponent might seem”. 

So how has such a set found itself at the heart of a legal challenge from one of its own barristers, who accuses it along with Stonewall of discriminating against her as a woman and a lesbian? 

Garden Court is a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme

Stonewall has recently attracted some accusations of homophobia for quietly redefining “sexuality” to mean an attraction to a gender, not a sex. Stonewall’s definitions, from their glossary, are these:

Homosexual: This might be considered a more medical term used to describe someone who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards someone of the same gender. 

Gender: Often expressed in terms of masculinity and femininity, gender is largely culturally determined and is assumed from the sex assigned at birth

Gender identity: A person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (see non-binary below), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.

So for Stonewall, being L, G or B has nothing to do with a person’s sex, but rather means one is attracted towards a person’s “innate sense” of masculinity or femininity “which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth.”  

The idea that femininity is innate in women – and by extension, that unfeminine women are not women, and that the culturally determined status of women globally is not attributable to patriarchy but innate to women ourselves – is offensive to many women. Many lesbians (and gay men) are aghast at the proposition that sexual orientation derives from some sort of soul-based echolocation and disregards biological sex. 

One of those women is Allison Bailey, a criminal defence specialist at Garden Court, who is herself a lesbian. She sets out in the background to her action that she is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an active anti-racism campaigner who spent a night in a San Francisco jail for a peaceful protest in the wake of the acquittal of the officers involved in the beating of Rodney King – in summary, a woman who would seem to typify Garden Court’s ethos.

She was involved in setting up the LGB Alliance in 2019 to advance and protect the rights of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals to affirm themselves as attracted to members of their own or both sexes. LGB Alliance dissents from Stonewall’s position on the definition of homosexuality, accusing Stonewall of homophobia. That has upset Stonewall.

So far, so perfectly ordinary: private citizens are well within their rights to be involved in whatever social and political voluntary work they wish within permissible legal confines, without interference from their employers or their colleagues.  

However, when Allison tweeted in support of the LGB Alliance immediately following its first public meeting, Garden Court hastily put out a disclaimer distancing itself from Allison and her views, instigated a disciplinary procedure, and (she alleges), restricted the flow of work to her, causing her income to drop considerably. Allison says this was done under pressure from Stonewall. 

In her fundraiser, she sets out how in response to her Subject Access Requests, her chambers replied with four lever arch files of documents, while Stonewall blandly denied any correspondence about her. That, as she knew from the documents her chambers had provided, was untrue.  She pursued the inquiry, and this has resulted in her bringing an action against both Garden Court and Stonewall.

The legalities of the action are worth considering. She alleges that Garden Court discriminated against her as a woman and as a lesbian, so on the basis of the two protected characteristics of sex and sexual orientation. At the same time, she says that Stonewall engaged in “prohibited conduct” under s.111 of the Equality Act by instructing, causing or inducing Garden Court to discriminate against her. We are not aware of any other s.111 case that has been reported, so this may be  a legal first.

This week, Stonewall and Garden Court applied to the tribunal to strike out her claim. To succeed, they would have had to show that Allison’s claim was unarguable – that it was so ill-founded that it stood no prospect of success at trial. When a strike out application is heard, the judge has to take the Claimant’s case “at its highest” – because if it cannot succeed even at its highest then it is unarguable. 

Garden Court filed a 120 paragraph witness statement in support of its contention that the claim was unarguable. A cynic might suggest that anything that takes 120 paragraphs to refute or undermine is plainly arguable. Garden Court argued that the claim could not succeed on merits, and Stonewall argued that the s.111 point could not succeed as there was no relationship that could meet the requirement of instructing, causing or inducing. Allison asked for permission to amend her claim.  

In order to establish whether a claim is arguable or not it is inevitable that some of the evidence will have to be referred to. During this hearing, it emerged that Stonewall had leaned hard on Garden Court, writing emails which were characterised by the judge as a “threat” of reputational damage to Garden Court, including that for Garden Court to continue to support Allison “puts us in a difficult position with yourselves”, that Stonewall trusted Garden Court “would do what is right and stand in solidarity with trans people”, and that Garden Court must take disciplinary action against Allison or, as summarised by her barrister, face the reputational consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the judge concluded that it was at least arguable that this was “inducing” Garden Court to take the steps against Allison Bailey which it did. She also concluded that the Diversity Champions Scheme provided the requisite relationship, and that Allison had a “more than reasonable” argument that the steps taken amounted to discrimination. She refused the strike out application and granted the application to amend.

It remains to be seen whether the Employment Tribunal will conclude in June that the actions of Garden Court and Stonewall were actually unlawful rather than merely astonishing. 

In the meantime though, the question arises as to how much power and influence a charitable organisation should have over individuals with whom it disagrees. Even the most zealous defender of the Stonewall position would, we think, baulk if equivalent pressure were applied by another large and well regarded charity firmly embedded in the establishment – for example, the Church of England. If the Church were to lean as hard on an employer (or chambers) to disown a member for setting up an LGB organisation, there would quite rightly be uproar from Stonewall’s supporters. No charity, no matter how well intentioned, well financed or well regarded, should be able to use a diversity scheme to exert pressure which is at best (on Stonewall’s case) intrusive and at worst (on Allison’s case) unlawful. 

Garden Court is currently recruiting for specialists in business ethics.

Discrimination: Only Unlawful if It Is Unlawful

Discrimination is only unlawful if it is unlawful (or why mantras cannot be relied upon when it comes to legal advice)

My title feels like a bit of an obvious statement – but spend any time on current debates and it becomes a useful reminder. 

Discrimination is a word that has shifted in popular meaning. It relates to making choices and used to be regarded as having a more positive definition than currently. It used to suggest being discerning, recognising and understanding the qualitative difference between one thing and another. Now it is generally accepted as negative and relating to prejudice or stereotyping. Positive or negative, though – when is it unlawful?

Law is often complex, and equality law particularly so. But you wouldn’t get that from the mantras and soundbites we are exposed to in the knotty conflict between trans demands for inclusion and women’s sex based rights to single sex services and sports. Discrimination is a word we hear a lot.

Take rugby. The BBC reported that World Rugby is considering a proposal to ban transgender athletes from women’s contact rugby due to safety concerns that they say have emerged from recent independent research, claiming there was likely to be “at least a 20-30% greater risk” of injury when a female player is tackled by someone who has gone through male puberty.

Its current rules allow trans women to play as long as they suppress their testosterone levels for at least 12 months, in line with International Olympic Committee policy. 

But the governing body has undertaken a “comprehensive review” of that policy, telling BBC Sport in a statement that it was not working.

“The latest peer-reviewed research confirms that a reduction of testosterone does not lead to a proportionate reduction in mass, muscle mass, strength or power,” said the statement.

“These important determinants of injury risk and performance remain significantly elevated after testosterone suppression.

“This presents a clear safety risk when transgender women play women’s contact rugby.”

This is presented by trans lobbying groups as “discriminatory” (by which they mean unlawfully discriminatory) and “transphobic.”

But one of the early lessons one learns as a specialist discrimination lawyer is that the equation “I have a protected characteristic and a bad thing is happening to me = unlawful discrimination” is a commonly held but also fallible view. Bad things happen all the time to people but it is not automatically unlawful or even to do with their protected characteristic. 

So a useful list of things to note when initially considering if something is unlawful discrimination:

Firstly, if the cause of the harm is related to something which is not a protected class, then it is not unlawful discrimination. So not being offered a job because you have tattoos or are left handed may justifiably feel unfair. A recent example was Conisbee v Crossley Farm where the claimant’s brand of vegetarianism was deemed a lifestyle choice not a protected philosophical belief, meaning the discrimination was lawful.

Secondly if the bad thing didn’t happen because of a particular protected characteristic it is not unlawful discrimination – like being made redundant because the factory is closing; or not being able to dine at the Ritz Hotel because you cannot afford the cost. It might be contrary to another law but this article is only looking at equality law. This is because the act alleged to be discriminatory needs to be (at least substantially) because of that protected characteristic.

Thirdly even “a bad thing is happening to someone because of their protected characteristic” doesn’t always equate to unlawful discrimination. The UK wide Equality Act 2010 is full of exceptions to the general rules and defences to what would otherwise be unlawful discrimination. 

These exceptions are extensive and cover myriad areas: decisions of judges in court; service in the armed forces being excluded from the employment provisions on disability; allowing religious groups to appoint only a straight man who is not divorced as a priest; and many, many more. 

Further, if there is a conflict of rights, this is to be balanced to ensure the most equitable outcome. However, it means that one party, despite having a protected characteristic and suffering an adverse outcome, is judged by the court not to have suffered unlawful discrimination. Examples include Ms Ladele who lost her job as a Marriage Registrar because she would not marry same sex couples because of her religious belief; or Mr Lee the gay man whose request for a slogan iced onto a cake was declined in the Ashers Bakery case. Both had a protected characteristic and something bad happened to them linked to it, but they lost.

Finally for direct discrimination (but not indirect discrimination) there is the so-called “bastard defence.” If someone treats everyone equally dreadfully, then it is not “less favourable treatment” but equal treatment. 

So back to rugby. First thing, how does the law currently permit single sex rugby? You would think that as we generally disallow discrimination on grounds of sex, then people of either sex could insist it was direct sex discrimination not to let a person of the opposite sex play in a single sex team. 

However, there is an exception allowing for single sex teams. S195 Equality Act says :

Sport

(1)A person does not contravene this Act, so far as relating to sex, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of another as a competitor in a gender-affected activity.

(2)A person does not contravene section 29, 33, 34 or 35, so far as relating to gender reassignment, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of a transsexual person as a competitor in a gender-affected activity if it is necessary to do so to secure in relation to the activity—

(a)fair competition, or

(b)the safety of competitors.

(3)A gender-affected activity is a sport, game or other activity of a competitive nature in circumstances in which 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 sex as competitors in events involving the activity.

This tells us that if the evidence shows if the sport is gender affected (as defined in s195(3)) to ensure fair competition or the safety of competitors, then, if the organisers make it single sex, it is not unlawful discrimination. 

Excluding a trans woman from the women’s team is not discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment: it’s not because of their gender reassigment that they’re not able to play on it, but because of their physically male sex. 

Further, it is arguable that if the organisers, despite evidence of safety risk or unfairness, choose not to use the exception in s195, it may in turn be unlawful indirect sex discrimination against a natal woman who is significantly disadvantaged, on grounds of safety or fairness, by the policy of letting trans women play rugby.

So, contrary to those claiming it must be discrimination, excluding trans women from women’s rugby may not be unlawful discrimination. It may feel unfair, hurtful or exclusionary but it is not unlawful discrimination. Indeed to do otherwise may itself be unlawful discrimination against natal women.

Obviously, every issue is determined by the specific evidence and until the court make a final judgment one cannot say definitively in any case whether something is or is not unlawful discrimination. Lawyers can advise based on interpretation and precedent. However, what we can say for certain that discrimination is only unlawful if it is unlawful.

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.

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.