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It also suggests the law is outdated and we shouldn’t wait for Parliament to recognise what the law should be.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.

AEA v EHRC: An Explanation

There has been a lot of interest in human rights circles about this case and its refusal of permission to judicially review the guidance relating to single sex services. We will look at what the case was about and what the refusal to allow permission might mean. We start by introducing the parties.

The Claimant 

The Claimant was Authentic Equity Alliance (“AEA), a community interest company established in 2018 to promote the personal and professional development of women and girls.

It was asking for permission for the courts to determine whether or not the EHRC’s  (below introduced as the Defendant) guidance relating to single sex services was lawful.

The Defendant

The Defendant to the claim was the Equality and Human Rights Commission, (EHRC) a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006. On its website it advertises itself in the following terms:

As a statutory non-departmental public body established by the Equality Act 2006, the Commission operates independently. We aim to be an expert and authoritative organisation that is a centre of excellence for evidence, analysis and equality and human rights law. We also aspire to be an essential point of contact for policy makers, public bodies and business.

Its job is to provide guidance and expertise on equality law. To that end it has produced various codes and documents, including the Statutory Code of Practice for Services, Public Functions and Associations (“the Code”), which is the authoritative guide to interpretation of the Equality Act. 

Principal area of concern

AEA’s claim against the EHRC focused on one paragraph of the Code:

[Text: If a service provider provides single or separate sex services for women and men, or provides services differently to women and men, they should treat transsexual people according to the gender role in which they present. However, the Act does permit the service provider to provide a different service or exclude a person from the service who is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or who has undergone gender reassignment. This will only be lawful when the exclusion is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.]

The Question of Lawfulness

The excerpt from the EHRC’s code which is copied out above  relates to  the Equality Act which allows service providers to run women only services (in Schedule 3). The Equality Act starts from a position of non-discrimination – the majority of services are available to everyone regardless of the nine protected characteristics – but accepts that there will be exceptions to this rule. Many of these are uncontroversial. It would be remarkable for someone to suggest that the Brownies are not entitled to discriminate on the basis of age, for example. 

Justified Women Only Services

Women only services are  exceptions to the starting point of non-discrimination and they are allowed under the conditions set out in Schedule 3. 

Broadly (we paraphrase and are not delving into technical details here)

Requirement 1

  • It is lawful, and will not be sex discrimination, to offer single or separate sex services (SSS) when this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim (Paragraph 26 – 27 )

Requirement 2

  • it is lawful, and will not be gender reassignment discrimination, to offer SSS, if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. (Paragraph 28)  

The Substance of the Claim

The claim that was brought was, as the judge said at the end, complicated. A simplified – possibly oversimplified – summary is this:

Prescriptive Inclusion: The “Must” Approach

The Claimant, AEA, said that the phrase in the COP “should treat transsexual people according to the gender role in which they present” had wrongly led service providers to think that they must treat people according to the role in which they present. The Claimant provided evidence of various bodies which had adopted this position (as discussed below). 

The Defendant, EHRC, said that 

  • the COP said “should,” not “must,” 
  • that exceptions were available, and 
  • that the bodies which had adopted the “must” position had not expressly said that they had had regard to the COP. On that basis, the EHRC said that those bodies cannot have been led, or misled, by the COP, as none of them mentioned it. 

In fact, the EHRC said, a policy that said a service provider ‘must’ treat people according to the role in which they present would be “directly inconsistent” with the COP. 

In other words – other bodies may well be making this unlawful assertion, but it ain’t us guv.

The EHRC suggested that if other bodies had unlawful policies, these should be challenged directly, rather than holding EHRC itself responsible for bodies which should have followed its guidance, but either did not do so or misunderstood it – although naturally, the EHRC was not willing to concede that anyone had been misled in the absence of a smoking gun in the form of a policy which said “and we got this off the EHRC Codes Of Practice”. This, as we will come to shortly, is important. 

Extent of Justification Required 

The Claimant said that if a service provider meets the first requirement  (paragraphs 26-27 of schedule 3) and identifies that providing a woman only service is a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim,’ it need not meet the second requirement (paragraph 28 of schedule 3) in order to lawfully provide a female-only or male-only service. 

The ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ having been once identified for the purposes of providing the service at all to the exclusion of persons of the opposite sex, there was no need to re-invent the wheel by identifying it again for the purposes of excluding a person of the opposite sex who also had the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. 

The EHRC said that this was wrong. It said that the AEA’s analysis didn’t account for those who had lived ‘for many years’ in an acquired role and yet had not, for whatever reason, applied for a GRC. It might be reasonable to include such a person notwithstanding that they were legally male, while it might be equally reasonable to exclude someone with a GRC who was legally female.

At this stage the parties’ arguments essentially converged. Both parties were arguing that a GRC was not relevant to the provision of a single sex service. 

Whether Appearance is a factor

The court examined the situation where a person using a woman only service is  “visually indistinguishable” from a woman and what this means in law. 

This phrase’s provenance is from a case which predates the Gender Recognition Act (“GRA”),  A v CC West Yorks. It was about  a transsexual MTF police officer who argued that she had suffered discrimination because she was refused employment, as she would not able to search female prisoners. [For the avoidance of doubt, the court held that Ms A “appeared in every respect to be a woman” – this is not a case in which Ms A asserted a gender identity at odds with appearance which would, nevertheless, today bring her within the scope of the Equality Act.  The case was brought because a prohibition on conducting searches would alert her colleagues to her trans status, which was not known to them. There is absolutely no suggestion that she was seeking inappropriate contact with female prisoners. ]

The House of Lords held that sex could include  “the acquired gender of a post-operative transsexual who is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from non-transsexual members of that gender. No one of that gender searched by such a person could reasonably object to the search.” This was all decided under the provisio that the GRA would consider and address the issue of legal sex.  

Times have changed. The GRA is now in force. We no longer assume that gender reassignment means “a post-operative transsexual” and we now understand intimate searches to be something to which a person consents, not to which they object – albeit lack of consent may be no obstacle where the relevant PACE requirements are satisfied.

However personal appearance is  a factor which both parties acknowledged as relevant when providing a single sex service and applying the exceptions. In a situation satisfactory to nobody, personal appearance is relevant when assessing whether excluding a transwoman from a woman only service is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

The decision

The Judge decided that  AEA’s question about the lawfulness of the EHRC’s guidance should not be put in front of the courts. His  job was not to decide what the correct interpretation of the law was at this stage. All he had to do was decide if AEA’s claim was “arguable” – that is, was it arguable that the EHRC’s guidance was so wrong as to be unlawful. 

He decided it was not, for the following reasons:

  1. On the first argument, he agreed that the COP said “should,” not “must.” He pointed out that the guidance extends to just four paragraphs and is intended to be a brief summary not a detailed legal analysis. After “should” comes the disclaimer “However,” followed by an explanation of where exclusion will be reasonable. Although it is not detailed, it is not intended to be an exhaustive guide.
  2. He also agreed that if there are public bodies which have understood a ‘should’ as a ‘must,’ these are capable of challenge by individual service users to individual service providers, whether inclusive or exclusive. We look at this below. 
  3. On the second argument, he agreed with the EHRC that even if a service has met the first requirement by showing it needs to be a single or separate sex service in order to exclude men, nevertheless, it must also meet the second requirement to exclude transwomen where necessary. 
  4. It may well be that a service needs to be female only, but the variation in presentations of transwomen from someone who is ‘visually indistinguishable’ to someone who has only just announced an intention to transition, and the variation in needs of the service users from a rape crisis centre to a changing room with partitioned cubicles, mean that there cannot be the certainty advanced by the Claimant.
  5. In respect of the third argument, the judge agreed that physical appearance is relevant. This is unfortunate. Someone who is genuinely visually indistinguishable will be unlikely to cause challenge or consternation on accessing a SSS, even if they should choose to do so. Focus on a person’s physical appearance is likely to be experienced as demeaning by both the subject and the person required to make the assessment.

THE EHRC’s Stance on Single Sex Services

It would have been significant if the EHRC had been forced  to change its guidance, but the refusal of permission means that the existing situation continues – but with the welcome clarity that the EHRC has acknowledged that there are instances where refusing access to a person of the opposite sex is perfectly reasonable and not phobic. 

The EHRC made two important concessions:

  1. It  distanced itself from prescriptive public guidance that those who self identify as such “must” be treated as women, 
  2. It  made clear that in its view that a women only service is permissible and  the correct approach is more nuanced  with a starting point of inclusion but recognising that exclusion can be  justified (due to being a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’).

What does all this mean?

EHRC agrees that women only space does not have to include anyone who is male at birth, and described prescriptive inclusion policies along the lines of self-ID as “directly inconsistent” with the Code of Practice.

And where should these cases be brought?

The judge strongly agreed with the EHRC that a better challenge would have been brought by an individual service user against an individual service provider, rather than in the abstract at the level of the EHRC and the AEA.

Whilst a reasonable view in law, this is a sad outcome for both trans and feminist service users and for service providers engaging with SSS policies. Women’s services such as crisis centres, refuges and support groups are overstretched and ill positioned to sustain lengthy legal battles.

Some of the Misleading Public Guidance

The policies which AEA had pointed to as containing misleading guidance included 

all of which envisage that a person must, in some cases from the moment they announce an intention to transition, be allowed to use shared private facilities of their preferred sex. In many of these policies there is no hint that the authors were aware that exclusion may be justified where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

EHRC said that there was no evidence that the authors of such policies had been led or misled by EHRC, and that the COP provided adequate guidance explaining that exclusion could be justified.

Here is what EHRC said in its skeleton argument about these documents:

“… insofar as the AEA’s primary objection is to guidance suggesting trans-persons must be allowed to  access the SSS of their acquired gender, that is directly inconsistent with the COP. As set out below, the COP makes clear, in terms, that trans-persons can be excluded from a service where that is justified, and, indeed, the EHRC has taken steps to bring that to  the attention of service-providers whose guidance erroneously suggests trans-persons  must always be permitted to use the SSS of their acquired gender irrespective of the  needs of, or detriment to, others. A striking feature of the present litigation is that, if the  AEA or others affected have identified guidance or practices of other public or private  bodies’ that does, in fact, reflect incorrect statements of law, it is not clear why they are  not being pursued. Instead, a claim has been brought in relation to the EHRC’s COP  which simply does not contain the alleged errors.” [emphasis added]

It might be considered remarkable that quite so many bodies have apparently developed policies without regard to EHRC’s express intervention and also its statutory Code of Practice, but there we have it. Policies and guidance which say a person must be allowed to access the SSS of their acquired gender without reference to possible exceptions is “directly inconsistent” with the COP, and the EHRC will correct service providers whose guidance is “erroneous” in that respect. 

What happens next?

Everyone who provides a single or separate sex service should ensure that they have good legal insurance. It seems likely that as a result of this litigation, women will take action against the individual service providers whose guidance is erroneous, and that more trans people will take action against SSS when they feel that they have been wrongly excluded. As these cases progress up from the county courts to the High Court and Court of Appeal, general principles will be developed through case law as to what a ‘proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’ looks like in practice.

Organisations offering a SSS also need a policy on how, and when, they will apply the exceptions. It will not be enough simply to say “this service is female only.” The policy must set out why the SSS is justified at all and then must say that admission of transwomen is or is not likely to be justified. A blanket ban is likely to be unlawful: the rather far-fetched example was given of a transwoman with her children approaching an otherwise empty women’s refuge in the middle of the night. The policy must envisage the improbable as well as the routine.

Finally, we need more research. Many women avoid mixed space and we hypothesise they will simply self-exclude quietly, leading service providers to become complacent about the need for single sex services. “Our service is unisex,” they say “and we see no women here who have a problem with it, therefore it is unproblematic.” Women who have stopped using a service because it became mixed, or who avoid coffee shops with unisex loos, need to make this known. Service providers need good research to rely on when deciding whether a SSS is justified in order to meet women’s needs. If the service already has an inclusive or conversely an exclusive policy it will not be enough to simply consult with existing service users – it will be necessary to identify potential users too because the policy will have defined the existing service user group. 

Sex Based Rights: A Remedy To Sex Based Wrongs

What are “sex based rights”? What do women mean by the phrase – and do we even have them? 

A pithy answer is that they are the remedy to sex based wrongs, perhaps – depressingly – a far more readily identifiable set. 

What is usually meant by “sex based rights” are the exceptions set out in the Equality Act allowing services and public functions to offer a single or separate sex service, and to offer this on the basis of biological sex, as well as allowing employers to recruit for only a member of one sex where there is a genuine occupational requirement, women only membership associations, and women only sports.

They are exceptions because they do not arise in the course of the mundane, or in the course of most recruitment. The word “exception” here simply means that you cannot separate by sex “except” where you can – it does not denote that you must have an “exceptionally impressive” reason for doing so. 

Blackadder misinterprets the Equality Act when Baldrick relies on the single sex exceptions

So if you run a greengrocers you cannot insist that you only provide your service to men, and if you run a pub you cannot have a ladies’ room separate to the men, as used to be common. If you are recruiting an admin assistant it would be unwise to ask for women only. If you are the proprietor of a golf club you must not only allow men into the bar. 

So the ordinary rule for services is that everything is mixed sex, except where 

  •  “only persons of that sex have need of the service,” s.27(2) Schedule 3 Equality Act – for example, a lesbian support group;
  • “The service is also provided jointly” and “would be insufficiently effective were it only to be provided jointly,” s.27(3) Equality Act – for example, a mental health group which offers both a mixed group and a men’s group catering to men’s specific needs;
  • “A joint service would be less effective” and “the extent to which it is required by persons of each sex makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services,” s.27(4) Equality Act – for example, a feminist society in which consciousness raising sessions are held;
  • The provision is at a hospital or similar establishment providing special care, supervision or attention, s.27(5) Equality Act;
  • The service is likely to be used by two or more persons at the same time and a person of one sex might reasonably object to the presence of a person of the opposite sex, s.27(6) Equality Act – for example a changing room;
  • There is likely to be physical contact between service users and a person might object if that were from a member of the opposite sex – for example a single sex martial arts class, s.27(7) Equality Act.

S.28 to Schedule 3 goes on to clarify that providing a single sex or separate sex service can extend to excluding a person on the basis of gender reassignment – if the conduct in question is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

It should perhaps be noted here that not all exceptions in the Equality Act are sex based. There are a number of age based exceptions for example – and as far as services go, s.30 Schedule 3 provides a general dispensing power allowing service providers to provide a service to those who share a particular protected characteristic if the provider “reasonably thinks it impracticable” to provide the service to others.

In addition to the exceptions for service providers, employers may, if justified, require an employee to have a particular characteristic, s.1 Schedule 9 Equality Act. In the context of sex based rights, that might mean recruiting a female carer to provide intimate personal assistance to a woman, or a female counsellor for a rape crisis or domestic abuse centre. 

Membership organisations may restrict membership to persons who share a protected characteristic (s.1, Schedule 15 Equality Act). 

(There are also single sex provisions for sports, which this post, already too long, doesn’t touch on further.)

Are these truly “sex based rights”? As armchair pedants will be swift to point out, these are exceptions to the rule of indiscriminate provision rather than rights. The Equality Act does not seek to confer rights; it ensures protections. But what it does recognise is that equality in its purest form – whereby no service provider was allowed to distinguish between child and adult, man and woman, belonging or not to a particular faith – would lead to injustice. In particular, it reflects that equality does not always mean treating everyone the same. Sometimes it also requires removal of barriers, or making provision to address particular disadvantages.  What makes the exceptions actionable rights are the provisions of s.19 which prohibits indirect discrimination and the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) contained in s.149. A body which declined to consider using the exceptions would be vulnerable to a claim in the County Court for indirect discrimination or to judicial review in the case of a public sector organisation which failed to properly apply the PSED.

And where state bodies are concerned, it also works alongside the Human Rights Act, which does confer (or confirm) rights – controversial at the time of the introduction of the HRA, because of the spectre of a precedent of a benevolent government ‘granting’ rights to citizens which could then be snatched away by a despotic successor. The HRA includes freedom from degrading treatment, the right to privacy and dignity, and freedom of association, all of which are relevant to the provision and retention of single sex services. 

So why are they controversial, in a way that corresponding exceptions for other protected characteristics such as age or disability are not? 

The answer seems to lie not in our attitude to sex based rights, but in our attitude to sex based wrongs. It is by no means novel to suggest that such wrongs are historic and now cured by our supposedly perfect and equal society: the surge in ‘men’s rights activism’ of the 90s and 00s was predicated on the idea that women had already gained all the rights we could legitimately expect, that the playing field was entirely level, and any further progress was “demanding special treatment.” 

The nineties were a particular hotspot for such arguments, as the marital rape case (R v R [1991] UKHL 12) was argued and ultimately won. On 23 November 1991, Neil Lyndon produced an article entitled “On how civilised society is being corrupted by feminists and their mad doctrines” in the Spectator, complaining that the “Spare Rib hoods” had infiltrated the law: “The Law Lords tipped their wigs in the direction of the hoods when they reinterpreted the law on rape to include acts between a married couple… they acceded to and gave established respectability to the idea that normal men are rapists.”

The following year, on 17 October 1992, Barbara Amid expressed horror that the government is now “dancing to the tune of radical feminists.”… “In the past 20 years, our society has gone a good way towards becoming a matriarchy… And just as I, being a supporter of liberal democracy, would fight a patriarchy, the fight now must be against matriarchy.” 

Indeed, men’s rights activists such as Diana Thomas (writing in 1993 as David) insisted that it was really men who suffered sex based oppression – including by being ‘provoked by neurotic women into committing date rape’.  

None of this, of course, was exclusive to the 90s. As far back as 1953, the Lady column in the Spectator magazine was complacent: “The time has at last come when the self-respecting intelligent woman need no longer call herself a feminist… The battle is over. The women have won.”

What is new, though, is that such strictures are no longer the preserve of the conservative. Helen Pluckrose wrote in October 2020 in this thread that “I don’t believe sexism against women is a mainstream thing.”

This is not a criticism of Helen, whom I have always found to be a lucid and interesting thinker, whether or not I agree with her. The point is that many, many people did agree with her that while virtually all other forms of prejudice continue to exist and should be countered, sexism against women does not – or at least not in the ‘mainstream.’ 

For those who take this position, increasingly not just conservatives but also those who would regard themselves as social justice connoisseurs, there is no point to sex based rights because there are, by that definition, no sex based wrongs.

If male violence is not targeted at women by sex, but the random violence of a few ‘bad apples’ misbehaving, then women do not need special measures to ensure their protection from it. If there is no sexism, then there is little basis upon which to rest a belief that a joint service would be less effective than a single sex one, and no basis upon which a member of one sex might ‘reasonably object’ to the presence of a member of the opposite sex. If there is no sexism, no barrier to female participation, then women only shortlists are a narcissistic indulgence, women only associations unnecessary and suspect, women only occupational requirements nothing more than special treatment for whingers. 

For those who do see sexism, sex based rights – the recognition within the Equality Act that single sex spaces and provision are sometimes necessary – are crucial. 

While male violence continues to be targeted at women by sex, some survivors will need places where they can breathe, speak and recover freely, without the hypervigilance arising from hearing a male voice or seeing a male person – however delightful that person may be. Post traumatic stress reactions do not pause to reflect on “not all men.” 

While sexism persists, women will need privacy and dignity when changing, when in need of personal care, or in any of the myriad situations envisaged by the Equality Act’s exceptions when a single sex service can be justified. 

While women are subject to FGM, sexual violence, forced marriage, honour killing, corrective rape, military rape, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, selective abortion, sexual harassment, prostitution, pornography, objectification, sex trafficking, maternity discrimination, unequal pay, disproportionate caring responsibilities, domestic violence, financial exploitation and control, political underrepresentation, inadequate healthcare, limited control of their own bodies and reproductive choices, systemic barriers to occupational progress and promotion, silencing, belittling or any of the other ways in which sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are enforced, “sex based rights,” however inadequate a shorthand that may be, are a hallmark of a civilised society. Until sexism is eradicated, sex based rights are indispensable. 

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.