Bad hair day

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

It never ceases to amaze me that employers and service providers fall foul of arbitrary codes or policies which they impose on employees and service users. Regular readers of this Blog will be aware of previous articles covering discrimination or less favourable treatment which arises because employers or service providers issue generalised guidelines which discriminate against individuals because they happen to have certain hairstyles or wear beards or jewellery.

It is this lack of awareness that often leads to legal action in terms of the Equality Act 2010. By imposing a policy, criterion or practice (PCP) across the board, employers and other organisations could be setting themselves up for a fall specifically in relation to Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010. This part of the Act makes indirect discrimination unlawful i.e. it is an example of prohibited conduct by reason of a person or a group possessing a protected characteristic such as race or religion (Sections 9 and 10 respectively)

Since the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1976 (now repealed by the Equality Act 2010), we have seen a number of well known cases involving indirect discrimination being determined by Courts and Tribunals. So, you would think by now that employers and other organisations would have learned the lesson by now – apparently not as we shall see shortly.

In short order, such bans or generalised restrictions may infringe religious and cultural expression and may not only be a breach of the Equality Act, but could also represent a breach of human rights laws under the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Over the years, groups such as Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Sikhs and Rastafarians have brought successful legal actions for indirect discrimination on grounds of race and/or religion (see Mandla v DowellLee [1982] UKHL 7). Being Jewish or Sikh can be both a religious and a racial identity.

Taking all of the above on board, I was really interested to read a story in The Independent this weekend which highlighted the problems of schools imposing dress codes on pupils. I thought: haven’t we been here before and why does no one seem to learn?

The story in question involves Ruby Williams who was “repeatedly sent home from Urswick School in Hackney, East London because she had Afro hair”. The school seems to have reacted with gross insensitivity to the youngster by informing her that her hairstyle was a breach of school uniform policy and that it could “block other pupils from seeing the whiteboard”.

Ruby and her family took legal action against the school (with the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission) and she has since been awarded an out of court settlement of £8,500. The settlement figure clearly reflects the distress which she has suffered and the fact that all this trouble took place when she was studying for her GCSE exams (remember the Vento Guidelines anyone?). Ruby’s father is a Rastafarian and he has often stressed to his daughter the cultural, racial and religious significance of Afro hairstyles.

Apart from indirect discrimination which the school’s policy has caused to Ruby Williams, she may well also have had a claim in terms of Section 13 (direct discrimination) and Section 26 (harassment) of the Equality Act 2010 for being singled out in this way by the school authorities.

Perhaps the staff and Governors of the school might find it appropriate to undertake an equality awareness course at the next in-service day?

It is always open to an employer or service provider to show that although indirect discrimination has taken place, it can be objectively justified e.g. on national security grounds or health and safety reasons (e.g. Singh v Rowntree MacKintosh [1979] ICR 554 and Panesar v Nestle Co Ltd [1980] IRLR 64 CA).

Each attempt to justify a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) will, of course, turn on its facts and it would be very foolish for organisations to think that there is some sort of magic bullet or get out of jail card which can be used in every situation to justify or excuse conduct which would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination. Organisations should review policies on a regular basis and, if need be, this may necessitate the carrying out of an equality impact assessment.

A link to the story on The Independent’s website can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.080220/data/9323781/index.html

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/09/boxing-clever/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/20/beardy-weirdy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/21/indirect-discrimination/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/10/everyday-experiences-of-racism/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/hurt-feelings/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 9 February 2020

Burka bans and horse racing in a Hijab

Photo by أخٌ في الله on Unsplash

I have just been reading two, contrasting stories about Islamic dress codes which appeared in today’s UK media.

The first story comes from our close neighbour and EU partner, the Netherlands which has decided to bring in a new law banning certain forms of Islamic dress – principally the Burka, Hijab and the Niqab – from being worn by female Muslims in hospitals and schools and while travelling by public transport. This ban imitates similar initiatives in other EU member states such as Austria, Denmark, France and Germany. Those individuals who ignore or flout the ban run the risk of being fined €150. Some Dutch politicians, for example, Geert Wilders of the far right Party for Freedom would like the law to be extended in order to ban Islamic headscarves.

The second story comes from the UK and couldn’t be more different in tone. The BBC reports that a female, Muslim jockey, who wears the Hijab, has made history by winning the Magnolia Cup at Glorious Goodwood.

Links to the two stories can be found below:

http://news.sky.com/story/netherlands-burka-ban-comes-into-force-in-schools-hospitals-and-on-buses-11774887

Khadijah Mellah: Hijab-wearing jockey triumphs on Haverland and makes history

These two stories made me think about the limits of tolerance in relation to the outward signs of religious belief in our communities. Under UK and EU laws, a person’s religion is a protected characteristic and s/he has the right not to be subjected to unlawful, less favourable treatment (discrimination).

The right to enjoy protection from religious discrimination was first introduced to the mainland UK as a result of the EU Directive 2000/78/EC on Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation. The laws on religious discrimination were to be found in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. It should be noted that the scope of these Regulations was limited in that they applied only to the area of employment – not, for example, the provision of goods and services.

Previously, Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK which had laws on religious discrimination – for understandable reasons given the troubled history of that part of the world. The Regulations did not extend to Northern Ireland because it already had laws in place to deal with this issue.

The Regulations have now been superseded by the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 (primarily Section 10) which are much wider in scope in that they cover both religious discrimination in employment and the provision of goods and services.

Additionally, Article 22 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights recognises a person’s right to cultural and religious diversity.

Wearing Islamic dress is obviously a way in which very religious members of this community can express their religious beliefs. Reading both articles today, I found myself asking the question what would be the legal effects if a similar ban on Islamic dress was introduced in the UK?

The new UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has made disparaging remarks about forms of Islamic dress, but admittedly he does not seem willing to introduce a ban.

Countries such as Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and now the Netherlands are just as much bound by laws such as Directive 2000/78/EC and the Charter of Fundamental Rights as the UK is at the time of writing, so how do they justify banning certain forms of Islamic dress?

Freedom of religion is not absolute and sometimes the State can decide that a person’s religious beliefs must take second place if they clash with other people’s human rights (e.g. sexual orientation) or general public safety goals. In the UK, discrimination less favourable treatment in connection with a person’s protected characteristics may be permitted under the Equality Act 2010 if it can be objectively justified i.e. it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. Health and safety or concerns about terrorism are often grounds used by States across the EU to justify periodic crackdowns on the wearing of Islamic dress in public places.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 1 August 2019