A person’s protected characteristics in terms of the Equality Act 2010 seems to be the theme of the Blog today.
Sexual orientation is a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 4 and 12 of the Act. Most people these days are familiar with the following definitions in terms of an individual’s sexuality: e.g. heterosexual, homosexual (gay/lesbian) and bisexual.
What about a person who declares themselves to be pansexual?
According to Stonewall, the group which campaigns on behalf of the LGBTI community, this term refers to a person ‘whose romantic and/or sexual attraction towards others is not limited by sex or gender.’ Stonewall also makes the point that bisexual individuals can declare themselves to be pansexual.
An interesting story appeared in today’s British media about pansexuality. Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP and possible contender for the leadership of that Party, has declared herself to be pansexual. She is the first Member of the Westminster Parliament to define her sexual orientation in this way. Previously, she would have declared herself as heterosexual.
Andrew Adonis, Labour member of the House of Lords and former UK Government minister tweeted his reaction to the story:
The point that Adonis was trying to make is that it shouldn’t have been a story. As a society, the UK has supposedly become more tolerant and progressive towards people with different sexual orientations.
Ms Moran admitted herself that the decision to be open about her sexual orientation had caused friends and colleagues to worry that this might harm her career – and her aspiration to be the next or future leader of the Liberal Democrats. So much for a more tolerant and progressive society …
Explaining her reason for going public about her sexual orientation, Ms Moran stated that:
“… I feel now is the time to talk about it, because as an MP I spend a lot of my time defending our community [LGBTI] and talking about our community. I want people to know I am part of our community as well.”
A link to the story in Pink News can be found below:
As of today (31 December 2019), heterosexual couples in England and Wales will be able to enter civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage.
This change does not yet extend to Scotland: the Scottish Government has introduced its own Bill to introduce civil partnerships for heterosexual couples.
An info graphic showing the current progress of this Bill in the Scottish Parliament (Stage 1) can be seen below:
When the Labour Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair originally introduced civil partnerships across the UK (as a result of the Civil Partnerships Act 2004) such legal unions were open to gay and lesbian couples only.
It was the first time in the history of Scots and English family law that gay and lesbian couples were entitled to enter a legally recognised relationship.
Fast forward a decade or so and we now have same sex marriage in Scotland, England and Wales – but not yet Northern Ireland (although the clock may be ticking here on this issue). Admittedly, same sex couples can enter civil partnerships in Northern Ireland, but since the Republic of Ireland made same sex marriage legal in 2015, pressure has been mounting for change in the North.
The case which started the ball rolling was Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education EWHC 128 (Admin).
In Steinfeld and Keidan, an unmarried, heterosexual couple brought a claim for unlawful less favourable treatment against the UK Government on the basis that the law (contained in the Civil Partnership Act 2004) discriminated against them by forcing them to enter marriage as opposed to their preferred option of a civil partnership arrangement. The couple had strong “ideological objections” to marriage (irrespective of whether it took a religious or civil form) and argued, amongst other things, that the failure by the United Kingdom to give them the option of entering a civil partnership was a potential breach of their Article 8 rights (the right to privacy and family life) in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights. The ban on civil partnerships for heterosexual couples was also a potential breach of the Equality Act 2010 in the sense that it represented direct discrimination on grounds of a person’s sexual orientation.
Initially, the English High Court rejected the challenge brought by Steinfeld and Keidan, whereupon the case was allowed to proceed to the English Court of Appeal. Although expressing sympathy for Steinfeld and Keidan’s predicament, the Lord Justices of Appeal refused to overturn the ban (see Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education  EWCA Civ 81).
The couple were then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court.
On 27 June 2018, the Supreme Court issued its decision: R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary)  UKSC 32.
Lord Kerr gave the leading judgement (with which his fellow Justices concurred) and allowed Steinfeld and Keidan’s appeal:
“I would allow the appeal and make a declaration that sections 1 and 3 of CPA [Civil Partnership Act 2004] (to the extent that they preclude a different sex couple from entering into a civil partnership) are incompatible with article 14 of ECHR taken in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the UK Government of former Prime Minister Theresa May initiated steps to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 in respect of the law for England and Wales.
A link to an article about the change to the law in England and Wales on the Sky News website can be found below:
An interesting case which caught my attention recently seemed to raise many issues which I have been emphasising to my students who are preparing for their upcoming Discrimination Law exam this month.
The case (The Governing Body of Tywyn Primary Schoolv Aplin Case No 1600635/2016 ) seemed to cover (almost) the whole syllabus of the Discrimination Law unit:
A discrimination dismissal of a high flying professional employee (a head teacher)
A large sum of compensation awarded to the employee for the dismissal (nearly £700,000)
Direct discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic (the employee’s sexual orientation) in terms Sections 4, 12 and 13 of the Equality Act 2010
The real problems faced by the employee in attempting to mitigate his losses (which the amount of the compensation award reflects)
Breach of disciplinary procedures by the employer
Breach of human rights i.e. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to privacy and family life)
Alleged reputational damage caused to the employer as a result of the employee’s conduct
The reversal of the burden of proof
The use of hypothetical comparators
Matthew Aplin is an openly gay man who was the head teacher of Tywyn primary school in Wales. He has been a teacher for 19 years and has an excellent professional reputation. In 2015, allegations about Aplin’s private life came to the attention of his employer (the School’s Board of Governors). It was alleged that Aplin had engaged in consensual sexual relationships with two 17 year old males that he had met through Grindr, the well known dating app. Users of Grindr must be aged 18 or over and, significantly, Aplin did not suspect the true age of the two males.
Aplin believed that the two young men were over 18 and, in any case, users of Grindr have to be aged 18 or over.
Following these allegations of alleged misconduct, Aplin was suspended and the Board of Governors commenced a disciplinary investigation.
At the request of the Governors, an investigating officer (Mr Gordon) was appointed by the local council. Mr Gordon’s terms of reference in respect of Aplin’s behaviour were as follows:
(a) had this brought the reputation of the School into disrepute?
(b) had it impacted on his ability to undertake the role of Head Teacher?; and/or
(c) had it demonstrated so gross an error of judgment as to undermine the School’s confidence in him and, therefore, to call into question his continuation in the role?
Mr Gordon quickly concluded that Aplin should be dismissed from his post despite the fact that this employee did not represent a possible threat to children. Local Police officers were briefly involved in their own investigation, but significantly they later concluded that no crime had been committed by Aplin.
Despite this, Aplin was dismissed for gross misconduct by the School Governors.
He promptly appealed against his dismissal, but the Governors did not deal with this matter efficiently or properly. Angered at the perceived lack of fair treatment of his appeal, Aplin decided to resign from his employment and claim unfair (constructive) dismissal; discrimination by reason of his sexual orientation; and interference with his right to respect for private and family life.
The Employment Appeal Tribunal (which became involved to deal with technical aspects of the case) later noted:
“There were numerous procedural errors which amounted to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence in the investigation and the disciplinary hearing.”
Ordinarily, the burden of proof lies upon the claimant (Aplin) to show that discrimination has taken place. In this case, there were enough factors present which meant that the burden of proof should shift to the respondent (the School Governors) who would now have to show that they had not discriminated against Aplin.
On the question of whether the burden of proof should be reversed, Judge Shanks in the Employment Appeal Tribunal had this to say:
“… in my view the thrust of it [the Tribunal’s reasoning] is clear and it provides a sufficient basis for the ET’s decision that the burden of proof had shifted on the question of whether Mr Aplin was treated unfavourably because of his sexual orientation.”
In arriving at this position, Judge Shanks was firmly of the view that:
“.. the Tribunal had rightly recognised that the background to the whole case was intimately connected with Mr Aplin’s sexuality; they then judge that the procedural failures by the School were so egregious that the inference could be drawn that there was more to it than simply the fact that he had had lawful sex with two 17 year olds; and they therefore considered that it would be possible, in the absence of any other explanation, properly to infer that he had been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. That seems to me a perfectly acceptable line of reasoning.”
The decision of the Employment Tribunal
Aplin had been unfairly dismissed; and subjected to direct discrimination by reason of his sexual orientation.
As a point of interest, the case involved the use of hypothetical comparators to arrive at its decision, namely, would a heterosexual teacher (either male or female) who had sexual relations with two 17 year olds have been treated in the same way as Aplin? The Employment Tribunal concluded that such individuals would not have been treated any differently.
Interestingly, in its final judgement, the Tribunal found that, although a person’s sexual relationships are undoubtedly covered by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is not an absolute right. Such a right may be restricted or interfered with “where it is necessary for the protection of morals” in “a democratic society”:
“Thererefore, we consider that it is possible to conclude that in the circumstances of this case the claimant could have been disciplined for his admitted conduct within the qualification in Article 8(2). …
… However, a fair process would require the respondent to consider whether the claimant was aware that the individuals were 17 years of age. Further it would have to consider what the real risk of the issues becoming public were and therefore what the real potential for reputational damage was.”
The two 17 year olds were children in the eyes of the law and Aplin, as a Head Teacher, could be viewed as someone who was in a position of power and that position which could be abused by him.
As Aplin had admitted to his conduct (the relationships with the two males), the Employment Tribunal concluded that there was at least. 20% chance of him being dismissed successfully – had the proper disciplinary procedures been carried by the employer (which of course they were not). In this respect, Aplin suffered a 20% deduction in the overall compensation awarded to him as per the guidelines originally laid down in Polkey v AEDayton Services Ltd  UKHL 8.
Links to the decisions of the Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal can be found below:
Yesterday, I tuned into Jeremy Vine’s daily show on BBC Radio 2 while out in the car and happened to catch an interesting discussion about potential discrimination and blood donation.
Ethan Spibey was a guest on the show and he was discussing his campaign to make it easier for gay and bisexual men to make regular blood donations. Mr Spibey is involved in a campaigning organisation called Freedom to Donate.
Readers of this Blog will be aware that I often discuss examples of actual or potential discrimination in terms of the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Spibey’s contribution to the Jeremy Vine show got me thinking about an issue – to which I readily confess hadn’t featured much on my radar previously: was the requirement or condition imposed by the NHS in this country making gay or bisexual men abstain from sex for 3 months before they are permitted to give blood an example of discriminatory treatment?
A link to Freedom to Donate’s Twitter account can be found below:
The discussion about restrictions on who can give blood got me thinking: would this be an example of direct and/or indirect discrimination in terms of Sections 13 and 19 respectively of the Equality Act 2010?
Direct discrimination occurs when someone experiences unlawful, less favourable treatment because they possess a protected characteristic (in this situation: sexual orientation).
As we shall see, gay and bisexual men are certainly placed at a distinct disadvantage in regarding the current restrictions on blood donation when comparing their situation to that of heterosexuals.
The National Health Service (NHS) is also applying a practice criterion or policy (PCP) which has a disproportionately adverse effect on men who are gay or bisexual.
Section 19 of the Equality Act defines indirect discrimination in the following terms:
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.’
Section 19(2) makes it very clear what it is meant by a discriminatory provision, criterion or practice in relation to a relevant protected characteristic:
(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.
In 2017, to much fanfare, NHS England announced that the previous 12 month abstention period for gay and bisexual men had been reduced to the current period of 3 months.
A link to a press release from NHS England can be found below:
Apparently, all blood donors are asked about their sexual orientation as part of the screening process. However … if you are a gay or bisexual man, then you are asked further questions about your sex life.
Needless to say this requirement does not apply to individuals whose stated sexual orientation is heterosexual.
Now, Ethan Spibey conceded that the paramount duty of the NHS was to ensure the safety of blood donations, but he was firmly of the view that heterosexuals could pose just as much of a threat to the health and safety of the beneficiary.
Are gay and bisexual men suffering as a result of a hangover from the 1980s when the fear of AIDS and HIV was omnipresent as the rather grim public information film from the time demonstrates?:
The current approach to blood donations, as campaigners like Mr Spibey would argue, results in a blanket policy which has a disproportionately adverse effect on gay and bisexual men. A person’s sexual orientation is, of course, a protected characteristic in terms of Sections 4 and 12 of the Equality Act 2010.
Health and safety can be used as an objective justification to defeat claims of discrimination, but it must be a credible defence. Do gay and bisexual men represent a greater threat to the safety and security of the nation’s blood supply? Clearly, the scientific evidence would have to be objective and credible to sustain this argument.
After listening to Mr Spibey, I was left with the impression that the scientific evidence for treating this group of people differently might not be so clear cut.
A link to a discussion on the BBC website about the issue can be found below:
We can all be guilty of pre-judging other people – sometimes we do this consciously and, at other times, we can do this unconsciously. In other words, we can reduce people to stereotypes.
This becomes a problem if our pre-conceptions about other people cause us to behave in a way that translates into unlawful, less favourable treatment. If we treat others less favourably due to a protected characteristic that they possess (e.g. age, disability, gender, race, sexual orientation etc) in terms of the Equality Act 2010.
Stereotyping or negative perceptions about individuals may well give rise to the victim (with the relevant protected characteristic) having a claim for direct discrimination in terms of Section 13 of the Equality Act 2010).
This recalled a story, from several years ago, in which the BBC reported the experiences of a gay man who was subjected to all sorts of less favourable treatment based on negative stereotyping of LGBTI people. The victim of this offensive behaviour took successful legal action against the individual in question.
A link to this story on the BBC News site can be found below:
Clive Coleman reports on the case of a gay man who has won the first compensation award for discrimination based entirely on homophobic gestures.
More recent examples of negative sterotyping
When glancing through various media stories over the last few days, stereotyping or negative perceptions of people came to mind.
In the first story, sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease spoke about the negative reactions they often experience when going about their daily lives. People with this very serious condition have reported that their symptoms are mistaken by members of the public as drunken behaviour or that they are acting under the influence of drugs. Individuals who suffer from Parkinson’s have a disability in terms of Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010.
Stuart Devlin, who has cerebral palsy, carries a card to show door staff after being refused entry to pubs.
In the third story, which hails from Russia, the Russian authorities have allowed prisoners to resume yoga exercises during the period of their incarceration.
Previously, the Russian Government had banned this form of exercise for prisoners because it was believed it was linked to homosexuality! In the UK, a person’s sexual orientation is a protected characteristic in terms of Section 12 of the Equality Act 2010.
So sang Frank Sinatra for the first time in 1955, but do love and marriage go together like a horse carriage? In 2019, some people (heterosexual couples) would beg to differ, instead preferring to opt for a civil partnership arrangement.
In Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law, it was noted that, according to Section 8 of the Equality Act 2010, a person has the protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership if the person is married or is a civil partner.
In 2004, the UK Parliament passed the Civil Partnerships Act2004, which came into force on 5 December 2005 and permitted same sex couples to enter into legally binding relationships. It should be recalled that the Scottish Parliament gave its consent to the Westminster Parliament to pass this Act for Scotland too.
This legislation also extended the same employment benefits that married couples already enjoyed to same sex couples who entered a civil partnership. In relation to the field of employment rights, the Act applies to employment and pension benefits e.g. a concessionary travel scheme and civil partners of an employee will be entitled to take advantage of these if existing provisions permit a heterosexual partner or spouse of an employee to claim these benefits.
In Bull and Another v Preddy and Another  UKSC 73, UK Supreme Court Justice, Baroness Hale made the following remarks about civil partnerships:
“Civil partnership is not called marriage but in almost every other respect it is indistinguishable from the status of marriage in United Kingdom law. It was introduced so that same sex couples could voluntarily assume towards one another the same legal responsibilities, and enjoy the same legal rights, as married couples assume and enjoy. It is more than a contract. Like marriage, it is a status, in which some of the terms are prescribed by law, and which has consequences for people other than the couple themselves and for the state.”
Since the Supreme Court judgement in Bull and Another v Preddy and Another , the debate has moved on and the UK Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (which applies to England and Wales) and, in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament passed the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Act 2014.
Both pieces of legislation now permit same sex couples to enter civil i.e. non-religious marriages. Some Christian denominations, for example, the Church of Scotland, the Quakers (or the Society of Friends) and the Scottish Episcopal Church permit their ministers of religion to officiate at same sex marriage ceremonies, but some denominations do not (for instance, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches) which continue to emphasise the traditional view that a marriage is between a man and a woman.
Northern Ireland is the only region in the United Kingdom which currently does not permit same sex couples to enter marriages – although civil partnership is permitted. Readers of a previous blog entry (The ‘Gay Cake’ row) will be aware of this situation.
Heterosexual couples and civil partnerships
Interestingly, however, heterosexual couples were not permitted to enter civil partnerships as a more, modern alternative to marriage. Traditional marriage between a man and woman has been criticised on a number of grounds:
It’s seen as very patriarchal i.e. historically it unduly favours the male partner
It has religious associations which are not in keeping with the fact that the UK is (in 2019) a much more secular society
Some heterosexual couples are increasingly attracted to a more equitable and modern form of legal commitment i.e. civil partnership.
Despite these criticisms of traditional marriage, neither the UK or Scottish Governments have shown a desire to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. That is until very recently and a UK Supreme Court decision has now made reform of the institution of marriage and civil partnership essential on the basis of a human rights challenge.
The case which started the ball rolling was Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education.
In Steinfeld and Keidan, an unmarried, heterosexual couple brought a claim for unlawful less favourable treatment against the UK Government on the basis that the law (contained in the Civil Partnership Act 2004) discriminated against them by forcing them to enter marriage as opposed to their preferred option of a civil partnership arrangement. The couple had strong “ideological objections” to marriage (irrespective of whether it took a religious or civil form) and argued, amongst other things, that the failure by the United Kingdom to give them the option of entering a civil partnership was a potential breach of their Article 8 rights (the right to privacy and family life) in terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Held: by the English High Court that the claim should be dismissed. Mrs Justice Andrews stated in very strong terms that:
“The alleged interference by the state with their right to private life by denying them the right to enter a civil partnership is even more tenuous. There is no evidence that they are subjected to humiliation, derogatory treatment, or any other lack of respect for their private lives on grounds of their heterosexual orientation by reason of the withholding of the status of civil partners from them.”
The UK and Scottish Governments had shown absolutely no inclination to extend the civil partnerships legislation to heterosexual couples. If anything both Governments had prioritised the extension of marriage to same sex couples and Mrs Justice Andrews then went on to observe that:
“In my judgment the question whether maintaining the discrimination complained of is justified must depend upon the specific context. Here, the decision is to wait and see how the extension of marriage to same-sex partners affects civil partnerships before determining what to do about them. At present there is no clear evidence as to how civil partnerships are likely to be affected by extending marriage to same-sex couples and no clear social consensus on what their future should be (as the outcome of the two consultations demonstrates). However the figures that have emerged since March 2014 indicate that there has been a sharp decline in the number of civil partnerships formed in England and Wales compared to 2013, with a corresponding increase in the number of marriages of same-sex couples. In a consultation by the Scottish Government on Review of Civil Partnership dated September 2015, the statistics relating to jurisdictions where both marriage and civil partnerships are available to same sex and opposite sex couples (the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Hawaii) indicate that the vast majority of couples prefer marriage – in New Zealand in 2014 only 0.3% of the couples opted for civil partnership. In Scotland itself, after civil marriage was introduced for same-sex partners, there were only 8 civil partnerships registered in the second quarter of 2015, a decline of 94% from the previous year.”
The English Court of Appeal
This was not the end of the matter: Steinfeld and Keidan were permitted to appeal to the English Court of Appeal against Mr Justice Andrews’ decision (Steinfeld and Keidan v Secretary of State for Education  EWCA Civ 81). The Court of Appeal strongly objected to and unanimously rejected the notion that the case did not involve a potential breach of Articles 8 of the European Convention (not to say a potential breach of Article 14: the prohibition against discrimination).
That said, however, Lord Beatson (in dismissing the couple’s claim) went on to state:
“In my view, at present, the Secretary of State’s position is objectively justified. The future of the legal status of civil partnerships is an important matter of social policy that government is entitled to consider carefully. At the hearing the Secretary of State’s approach was described as a ‘wait and see’ approach, although it would be more accurate to describe it as a ‘wait and evaluate’ approach. Whatever term is used to describe the approach, it would not have been available to the Secretary of State prior to the enactment and coming into force of the 2013 Act. This is because it would not have been possible at that time to determine how many people would continue to enter into civil partnerships or want to do so because they share the appellants’ sincere objections to marriage. The relevant start date for consideration is thus 13 March 2014 when the provisions extending marriage to same sex couples came into force.”
His colleague, Lord Justice Briggs stated:
“I can well understand the frustration which must be felt by the appellants and those different sex couples who share their view about marriage, about what they regard as the Government’s slow progress on this issue. Some couples in their position may suffer serious fiscal disadvantage if, for example, one of them dies before they can form a civil partnership. This is a factor in the proportionality balance, and because this is a case of differential treatment on the basis of sexual orientation, that balance must command anxious scrutiny. But against the background of a serious but unresolved difficulty which affects the public as a whole, and the practicable impossibility of some interim measure, such as temporarily opening civil partnership to different sex couples when the eventual decision may be to abolish it, I am unable to regard the Secretary of State’s current policy of ‘wait and evaluate’ as a disproportionate response.”
The UK Supreme Court
As one might have expected, the UK Supreme Court was to have the final say in the matter.
On 27 June 2018, the Court issued its decision: R (on the application of Steinfeld and Keidan) (Appellants) v Secretary of State for International Development (in substitution for the Home Secretary and the Education Secretary)  UKSC 32.
Lord Kerr gave the leading judgement (with which his fellow Justices concurred) and allowed Steinfeld and Keidan’s appeal:
“I would allow the appeal and make a declaration that sections 1 and 3 of CPA [Civil Partnership Act 2004] (to the extent that they preclude a different sex couple from entering into a civil partnership) are incompatible with article 14 of ECHR taken in conjunction with article 8 of the Convention.”
There we have it: excluding heterosexual couples from the possibility of entering civil partnerships when same sex couples are now legally entitled to enter both marriage and civil partnership represents a breach of Article 8 and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This constituted interference with heterosexuals’ right to a private and family life and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.
That said, we have to be careful and Lord Kerr very wisely drew attention to the consequences of declaring UK parliamentary legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights by referring to the Supreme Court’s previous decision in R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice (CNK Alliance Ltd intervening) UKSC 38:
“An essential element of the structure of the Human Rights Act 1998 is the call which Parliament has made on the courts to review the legislation which it passes in order to tell it whether the provisions contained in that legislation comply with the Convention. By responding to that call and sending the message to Parliament that a particular provision is incompatible with the Convention, the courts do not usurp the role of Parliament, much less offend the separation of powers. A declaration of incompatibility is merely an expression of the court’s conclusion as to whether, as enacted, a particular item of legislation cannot be considered compatible with a Convention right. In other words, the courts say to Parliament, ‘This particular piece of legislation is incompatible, now it is for you to decide what to do about it.’ And under the scheme of the Human Rights Act 1998 it is open to Parliament to decide to do nothing.”
So what happens next?
In October 2018, Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, announced that the Government would amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to permit heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships as a result of the Steinfield and Keidan decision:
Where does this leave Scotland?
It should, of course, be remembered that the Scottish Parliament (in terms of the Sewel Convention or Legislative Consent Motion) gave its permission to the UK Parliament to pass civil partnership legislation in 2004 for Scotland (the Civil Partnership Act 2004). Family law (including marriage and civil partnerships) is, of course, a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament in terms of the Scotland Act 1998. The Scottish Parliament was criticised at the time for not legislating in this area of important social policy.
The rather awkward situation for the Scottish Parliament (and Government) is that the legislation which is currently in force in Scotland regulating civil partnerships is incompatible with human rights. As discussed, the UK Parliament can refuse to implement the Supreme Court’s judgement; the Scottish Parliament cannot.
If, post Steinfeld and Keidan, the Scottish Government continued to allow civil partnership legislation to operate in its original form, there is a very real risk that the Scottish Ministers will be taken to court and challenged by heterosexual couples (using Steinfeld and Keidan ) on human rights grounds.
The solution (for now)?
Letting the status quo prevail in Scotland is not an option because of the implications for human rights, so the Scottish Government announced a public consultation on civil partnerships in September 2018:
This consultation closed on 21 December 2018 and presented two options:
Abolishing the option of future civil partnerships for all; or
Permitting heterosexual couples to have the option of marriage or civil partnership.
A link to the Scottish Government’s consultation paper can be found below:
Will the solution follow the English/Welsh approach or will Scotland go down a different route?
We await with interest the Scottish Government’s conclusions on the matter. Watch this space.
In Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law, I looked at a case from Northern Ireland which quickly gained the unfortunate moniker or nickname of the “Gay cake row”.
The case in question was Ashers Baking Company Ltd & Others v Lee  and the dispute eventually reached the UK Supreme Court for its final determination (Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd & Others  UKSC49).
It’s probably useful to have a brief recap of the facts of the case:
Ashers Bakery chain is owned by the McArthur family and has its operational base in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The McArthurs are practising Christians. In May 2014, Gareth Lee, a customer, raised a complaint when his order for a cake was declined by Ashers. Mr Lee had asked for a cake depicting the characters, Bert and Ernie from the well known, American children’s television series, Sesame Street. The cake was also to have a slogan place on it: “Support gay marriage”. The bakery owners justified the refusal to make the cake on grounds of their strong religious beliefs and they could not be seen to be condoning or supporting gay marriage. Mr Lee also claimed that he had suffered discrimination due to his political beliefs – he volunteered with QueerSpace, an organisation which supports LGBT+ people.
At the time of these events (and even now in February 2019), Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same sex marriage is not available (although same sex couples can enter civil partnerships). QueerSpace is not a campaigning organisation, but it does have a pro-same sex marriage position. Mr Lee, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, decided to pursue a claim for direct discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and political beliefs against Ashers for its refusal to provide him with a service. The McArthur family was strongly of the view that their rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which they enjoyed courtesy of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights) were being infringed if they had to complete Mr Lee’s order as originally requested.
The Belfast County Court issued a judgement against Ashers finding that it had discriminated against Lee by reason of his sexual orientation and political beliefs. Ashers appealed this decision and, in October 2016, Sir Declan Morgan, Northern Ireland’s Chief Justice (sitting in the Court of Appeal) was strongly of the view that Mr Lee had suffered direct discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and his political beliefs. The Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland also stated that Mr Lee had suffered discrimination by reason of his association with members of the LGBT+ community.
Ashers Bakery was then given leave to appeal to the UK Supreme Court. On 10 October 2018, Lady Hale, delivering the unanimous judgement of the Supreme Court, stated that
“In reaching the conclusion that there was no discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in this case, I do not seek to minimise or disparage the very real problem of discrimination against gay people. Nor do I ignore the very full and careful consideration which was given to the development of the law in this area …
… Everyone, as article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put it 70 years ago is “born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Experience has shown that the providers of employment, education, accommodation, goods, facilities and services do not always treat people with equal dignity and respect, especially if they have certain personal characteristics which are now protected by the law. It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics. But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope.”
After dismissing the part of Mr Lee’s claim for sexual orientation discrimination, Lady Hale then went on to address the issue of whether the refusal by Ashers to make the cake with its slogan could be construed as a discrimination on the grounds of someone’s political beliefs. She noted that, in Northern Ireland, political beliefs were constitutionally protected. That said, however, this part of Mr Lee’s claim should also be dismissed:
“The objection was not to Mr Lee because he, or anyone with whom he associated, held a political opinion supporting gay marriage. The objection was to being required to promote the message on the cake. The less favourable treatment was afforded to the message not to the man. It was not as if he were being refused a job, or accommodation, or baked goods in general, because of his political opinion …
… The evidence was that they were quite prepared to serve him in other ways. The situation is not comparable to people being refused jobs, accommodation or business simply because of their religious faith. It is more akin to a Christian printing business being required to print leaflets promoting an atheist message.”
“The objection [by the Bakery] was to the message, not the messenger.”
Ashers Bakery was not aware of Mr Lee’s political beliefs and involvement with QueerSpace and, therefore, it could not be said that he was being discriminated against by reason of his association with certain individuals who possessed protected characteristics (i.e. members of the LGBT+ community):
It is worth noting that the reason political beliefs are constitutionally protected in Northern Ireland has much to do with that region’s troubled history since its creation in 1921 as a result of the Government of Ireland Act 1920.
Lady Hale also noted:
“The Court of Appeal [of Northern Ireland] held that “this was a case of association with the gay and bisexual community and the protected personal characteristic was the sexual orientation of that community” (para 58). This suggests that the reason for refusing to supply the cake was that Mr Lee was likely to associate with the gay community of which the McArthurs disapproved. But there was no evidence that the bakery had discriminated on that or any other prohibited ground in the past. The evidence was that they both employed and served gay people and treated them in a non-discriminatory way. Nor was there any finding that the reason for refusing to supply the cake was that Mr Lee was thought to associate with gay people. The reason was their religious objection to gay marriage.”
The UK Supreme Court has made quite a nuanced decision in dealing with the dispute between Ashers Bakery and Mr Lee. It will not satisfy everyone. If one had had to stare into the legal equivalent of a crystal ball before the Ashers’ decision, the logic of a previous decision of the Supreme Court – Bull and Another vHall and Another  UKSC 73 – might have led many to speculate that the Bakery would lose the appeal. This has turned out not to be the case.
In Bull (also discussed in Chapter 7 of Introductory Scots Law), it will be recalled that the Christian owners of a Cornwall B&B establishment had committed an act of direct discrimination by refusing to accommodate a same sex couple who had pre-booked a double room. The owners of the establishment had defended their decision to refuse the couple a double room on the basis of their religious beliefs. Interestingly, it was Lady Hale who also gave the leading speech in Bull.
I think we have to be very clear about the implications of the Supreme Court’s judgement: Mr Lee was not refused the provision of services by Ashers Bakery because of his sexual orientation. The Bakery was not refusing to bake him a cake: it objected to the message that he wanted to place on the cake. As David Scoffield QC, who appeared for Ashers Bakery, submitted:
“The reason for treating Mr Lee less favourably than other would-be customers was not his sexual orientation but the message he wanted to be iced on the cake. Anyone who wanted that message would have been treated in the same way.”
In the Bull decision, Lady Hale referred to Bayatyan v Armenia (2012) 54 EHRR 15, 494, where the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights made the following statement:
“The Court reiterates that, as enshrined in article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a ‘democratic society’ within the meaning of the Convention. This freedom is, in its religious dimension, one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it. That freedom entails, inter alia, freedom to hold or not to hold religious beliefs and to practise or not to practise a religion.”
Quite simply, it would have been a grave breach of the McArthur family’s sincerely held Christian beliefs – which are protected under Article 9 of the European Convention – if they had been forced to make a cake with the particular slogan which Mr Lee had requested.
A number of links to articles on the BBC website which cover the case can be found below: