The American approach

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

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.

Why?

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:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/17-1618_hfci.pdf

A link to an article on the BBC website about the judgement can be found below:

US Supreme Court backs protection for LGBT workers

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 [2003] 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 [1998] 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 [2003] (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.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/05/25/the-love-that-dared-not-speak-its-name/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/02/the-only-gay-in-the-village/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/01/04/pansexual/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/31/civil-partner-i-do/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/08/different-standards/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/06/biased-blood/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/10/04/a-very-civil-partnership/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/20/love-and-marriage/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/08/the-gay-cake-row/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 16 June 2020

The trouble with pregnancy …

Photo by Xavier Mouton Photographie on Unsplash

According to a study just published by the Young Women’s Trust, it would appear that, in 2019, pregnancy discrimination in employment is more common than you might have thought.

The figures seem to show that 10% of those employers who were questioned would be very hesitant to hire a female candidate because of fears that she may decide to have a child in the near to long term future. Male bosses were much more likely to discriminate against female employees in this manner.

Section 18 of the Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal for employers to treat a woman less favourably in relation to pregnancy and maternity. Thankfully, there is no longer a requirement for a women to identify a male comparator in cases of alleged pregnancy and maternity discrimination (Section 17 of the Act deals with discrimination in non-work cases).

The Equality Act was particularly significant for women. Probably, for the first time in UK anti-discrimination law, less favourable treatment in relation to the issues of maternity and pregnancy would be dealt with in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion. Under the older equality laws, such as the now defunct Sex Discrimination Act 1975, women could not always be confident that they would receive protection under the law in connection with these important issues. Regrettably, repeated failures by the UK Parliament in this area meant that the intervention of the European Union had to be called upon when domestic law was found to be inadequate.

Ultimately the Court of Justice of the European Union would improve the legal situation for pregnant women (see Dekker v Stichting Vormingscentrum voor Jonge Volwassen Plus [1991] IRLR 27, a case which originated in the Netherlands).

In Dekker, the Court of Justice stated unequivocally that it is always direct discrimination to refuse to offer employment to a woman for reason of her pregnancy. The Court also made it clear that a pregnant woman does not have to compare herself to that of a male co-worker/employee.

The provisions of Section 18 of the Equality Act implement the European Union’s Equal Treatment Directive (2002/73) in relation to maternity and pregnancy.

The Directive contained far stronger rules expressly forbidding discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity leave. This should mean that pregnant women now receive much stronger legal protection in employment. Pregnant employees must, however, prove that the less favourable treatment suffered by them was by reason of their pregnancy.

An employer will also commit an act of direct sex discrimination if a female employee is dismissed by reason of her pregnancy (see O’Neill v Governors of St Thomas More [1996] IRLR 27). The dismissal can also be challenged on the grounds that it is automatically unfair in terms of Section 99 of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

Yet, despite all this legal protection, we still hear stories about the prevalence of pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the work-place. The one bright spot in the story is that the number of employers who stated that they would be reluctant to hire a female employee due to pregnancy concerns had actually decreased. That, at least, is a small crumb of comfort, but still not much to be overjoyed about.

Links to the story can be found below

http://news.sky.com/story/dinosaur-bosses-reluctant-to-hire-women-who-may-get-pregnant-11790837

https://www.youngwomenstrust.org/what_we_do/media_centre/press_releases/1011_employers_say_theyd_be_reluctant_to_hire_women_who_may_have_children

A link to a recent case from Northern Ireland where a pregnant woman successfully sued her employer for discrimination can be found below:

Pregnant woman ‘unfairly dismissed’ rules industrial tribunal

Laura Gruzdaite was accused of “skipping work” despite telling bosses about a baby scan.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 22 August & 25 September 2019