Equal justice under law?
On Monday 15 June, 2020, the US Supreme Court issued a very important ruling (Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia (Case 17-1618)) that there can be no discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation or that they have (or are undergoing) gender reassignment. An attempt by an employer to dismiss a gay person or a transgender person will be an example of unlawful discrimination.
Surprise, surprise you might say: what took the Supreme Court so long?
Such discriminatory behaviour, the US Supreme Court has now declared, is a breach of Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act 1964 (which was enacted by Congress as part of President Lyndon B Johnson’s Great Society programme).
And this is where the American approach to the issue of discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation differs quite markedly from the UK.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 states that it is:
“unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual . . . because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
From a British legal perspective, the word “sex” in Title VII of the American legislation is problematic when applied to discrimination involving a person’s sexual orientation.
Quite simply, in the UK, we would understand the word “sex” in discrimination law as applying to an individual’s gender whether they are male or female; or identify as being male or female.
A link to the US Supreme Court’s judgement can be found below:
A link to an article on the BBC website about the judgement can be found below:
Readers of this blog might not regard the US Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia as in any way unusual. After all, in the United Kingdom and across the EU 27 member states, laws have been in place for a considerable period prohibiting unlawful discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Although the UK has now left the EU, the legislation protecting the LGBTI communities remains very much in place – by way of the Equality Act 2010 and other legislative instruments such as Article 19 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (primary legislation) and numerous Regulations and Directives (secondary legislation). The provisions in the Equality Act are, of course, an example of Westminster legislation and will remain hardwired into our legal system – for the time being at least.
The continuing status of European Treaty Articles, Regulations and Directives (in relation to the laws of the UK) will, of course, be up for debate when the Brexit transition period ends, as expected, on 31 December 20020.
The Equality Act 2010
Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010 addresses the issue of a person’s sexual orientation. This is a protected characteristic under the Act and means a person’s sexual orientation towards:
- persons of the same sex
- persons of the opposite sex
- persons of either sex.
Sexual orientation discrimination: the historical perspective
Before 1 December 2003, in the United Kingdom, it was not unlawful to discriminate against an employee or potential employee by reason of that person’s sexual orientation. The situation changed dramatically with the introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. The relevant law now being contained in the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits less favourable treatment on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation generally and such protection is no longer confined to the field of employment.
It should be noted, of course, that the Employment Equality Regulations were primarily brought into force to introduce protection for gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people. If, on the other hand, you were heterosexual, you were very unlikely to face discrimination in the work place due to your sexual orientation.
The primer for this change to the law in 2003 was the European Union’s Employment Equality Directive (as a result of the Treaty of Amsterdam 1999) which meant that the UK, as a member state, had to introduce legislation in order to guarantee that people who had suffered less favourable treatment in relation to employment had a form of legal redress. The Employment Equality Regulations 2003 (and now the Equality Act) implemented this duty on the part of the UK.
Employment Equality Directive was limited in its scope because it applied (unlike the more expansive Racial Equality Directive) to just two sectors: employment and vocational training.
Sexual orientation not sex
It is perhaps now instructive to examine the failure of UK laws to provide protection to individuals who suffered sexual orientation discrimination prior to the Employment Equality Regulations coming into force.
In Macdonald v Advocate General for Scotland and Pearce v Governing Body of Mayfield School  UKHL 34, the House of Lords held that discrimination on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation was not covered by existing UK equality laws (specifically the area of sex or gender discrimination then contained in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975).
Macdonald was dismissed from the Royal Air Force because he was homosexual or gay. Pearce, a teacher, had suffered an ongoing campaign of harassment while working at Mayfield School because she was a lesbian. Both Macdonald and Pearce claimed that the treatment that they had suffered was an example of direct sex discrimination.
Both claims failed because the treatment suffered by both individuals was an example of direct discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation – not because of their sex or gender. At the time of this appeal to the House of Lords, discrimination in employment on the grounds of a person’s sexual orientation was not prohibited by UK equality laws.
In its judgement, the House of Lords drew attention to the ironic fact that a new equality law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination would soon be introduced, but this admittedly would be too late for Macdonald and Pearce! Small comfort indeed!
Had the cases occurred today, the employers would be liable for direct discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010.
The perspective of the Court of Justice
Before the European Union’s Employment Equality Directive, the Court of Justice had been reluctant to lay the basis for greater legal protection in relation to a person’s sexual orientation.
In Case C-249/96 Grant v South West Trains Limited  ECR I-621, Lisa Grant had argued that the failure by her employer to extend a concessionary ttavel scheme (worth £1,000 per year) to Gillian Percey, her same sex partner, with whom she had been in a stable relationship for more than 2 years, was an example of unlawful, less favourable treatment. The employer permitted heterosexual spouses (including common law spouses of more than 2 years standing) to enjoy the benefit of the travel scheme. Grant’s predecessor in the post had been male and his female partner had benefited from the travel scheme.
Grant chose her male predecessor as her comparator as part of an equal pay claim. It is important to appreciate that Grant was bringing her claim as a sex or gender discrimination legal action. Although Advocate General Elmer was broadly supportive of the couple’s claim that they had suffered discrimination under what is now Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and the Equal Treatment Directive, the Court of Justice decided not to follow this Opinion.
The Court stated that two men in a same sex relationship would have been treated in exactly the same way as Grant and Percey by the employer. South West Trains did not wish to extend concessionary travel to same sex partners of employees and, currently, there was nothing unlawful about this policy as neither UK or EU equality laws prevented discrimination by reason of a person’s sexual orientation. At the time that this case was decided, it should be appreciated that same sex relationships in the UK were not legally recognised in terms of civil partnership or marriage – such legal recognition was still some way away.
To come back full circle, the European Union would, of course, later redress the situation with the Employment Equality Directive which led to the introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 into UK law. Had these Regulations been in force when Lisa Grant commenced her legal action against South West Trains, these would have given her and Gillian Percey significant legal protection from the discriminatory action of her employer. Admittedly, this was scant consolation for them and thousands of other same sex couples who experienced less favourable treatment in employment.
The European Convention on Human Rights
The provisions of the Convention have been implemented into Scots law via the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 which means that an individual will enjoy substantial legal protection in relation to his or her sexual orientation. Article 8 of the Convention places a duty on a public authority to have respect for a person’s private life. Fuirthermore, Article 14 of the Convention confers a general right on individuals not to be subjected to discrimionation. Employers who are defined as a public authority will have to ensure that they comply with these provisions. Private employers will also have to be aware of these provisions because there is nothing to stop an employee bringing a discrimination claim against the UK Government if some loophole exists which permits the employer to behave less favourably towards them on the grounds of their sexual orientation.
Interestingly, in Macdonald v Advocate General  (discussed above), the employee did attempt to argue that his dismissal by the Royal Air Force, by reason of his sexual orientation, was a breach of the European Convention, but this argument failed because the Convention had not yet been implemented by the Westminster Parliament.
Today, of course, Macdonald would have a very strong claim against his employer for the treatment that he had suffered. Although the war may ultimately have been won, this was a battle that the unfortunate Macdonald would lose.
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 June 2020