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Category Archives: Equal-opportunities

Bedroom tax case: don’t forget the ECHR

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Not enough has been said about the human rights legal dimension to the successful bedroom tax cases in the Supreme Court. It is important for two reasons:

  1. The cases succeeded thanks to Britain’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights where homegrown “British” law was unable to help (apart from the Human Rights Act, giving access to ECHR remedies). Neither English Common Law nor British parliamentary anti-discrimination legislation could assist either the Rutherfords or Jacqueline Carmichael gain exemption from having housing benefit docked  for their “extra” bedrooms.
  2. An earlier judgment of one of the cases, when it came before Lord Justice Laws, was intended to place a clear marker down discouraging such  cases based on ECHR rights on the grounds that “the courts are not the proper arbiters of public controversy”. The Supreme Court has therefore repudiated Laws’ attack on ECHR remedies.

The legal cases
The cases challenged the bedroom tax regulation on the grounds that it failed to give entitlement to an extra bedroom (without having housing benefit reduced) in cases where the bedrooms were needed for disabled people. The regulation restricts exemptions to “a relevant person … who requires overnight care; or a relevant person [who] is a qualifying parent or carer” (Regulation B13 (6). The relevant person (in paragraph 9) is the housing benefit claimant, his/her partner or another person liable to pay rent and his/her partner (see regulations below in full). But, as Lord Toulson noted in the latest case: “A person who requires overnight care is defined in Reg 2(1) in terms which have the effect of not including any child”.
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The MoJ barrister, the ‘Muslim weapons website’ – and a bad case of alleged racial profiling

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The UK Ministry of Justice has been spared an embarrassing tribunal case in which a barrister employed at a London magistrates court alleged racial discrimination. Haras Ahmed, a magistrates court adviser, had come under suspicion because another more junior employee, who was also Asian, had been taking bribes. An employment tribunal found their “shared ethnicity” was part of the reason for the suspicion of Ahmed, which was unfounded.

A suggestion had also been made to senior management that Ahmed had links on his computer to “Muslim sites containing weapons”. They turned out to be pictures of clay pigeon shooting.

The Tribunal considered that Ahmed’s removal from Redbridge Magistrates Court arose from “pressure from senior management due to concern that the Claimant may be implicated in the Redbridge fraud” and hence was done unreasonably and in bad faith. HM Courts and Tribunals Service were in effect under an obligation to prove their conduct was not racially motivated, said the Tribunal. Read the rest of this entry

Legal aid and divorce: Theresa May’s cackhanded crusade against Sharia courts

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The British Home Secretary Theresa May seems to want some sort of crackdown on the role of Sharia Councils – complaining in particular that their decisions in divorce matters are unfair to women. Yet her Government has virtually cut off all legal aid for divorce proceedings – with the result that many Muslim women will have little choice but to have their cases heard by Sharia Councils.

Sharia Councils (sometimes known as Sharia courts) are exactly the sort of bodies that the Government might think should be involved in divorce work. The Jewish Beth Din also arbitrates divorce cases, guided by halach, Jewish rabbinical law, and a recent legal case has affirmed that such arbitration will receive a measure of deference in the English and Welsh courts.

In abolishing legal aid for divorce and custody cases except in narrow circumstances, the Ministry of Justice said: “In cases like divorce, courts should more often be a last resort, not the first. Evidence shows that mediation is often more successful, cheaper and less acrimonious for all involved.” Yet, only now does the Government seem to have realised that family law cases come before Sharia Councils – for advice, mediation or something closer to binding arbitration – and the values of Sharia Councils aren’t necessarily those espoused by Tory ministers and do not meet modern standards regarding female equality. Yet women who might be dissatisfied with the results of of Sharia Council mediation or arbitration have been cut off from recourse to the courts by the new legal aid rules. May said in her speech against extremism announcing a review of Sharia Councils: Read the rest of this entry

Lord Rennard: Women should beware of slapping Old Goats

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Following the allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against the Liberal Democrats’ former chief executive Lord Rennard, some dangerous advice has been going the rounds. Basically women are told: if your chief executive touches you and you don’t like it – just slap him. Or throw drink in his face. Or give him a Chinese burn. This is the advice from Sarah Vine, Daily Mail columnist – and it is wrong. Slapping a chief executive is both a criminal and a sacking offence.

Now we must be careful. Lord Rennard has insisted no inappropriate conduct has taken place on his part. So for illustrative purposes we are going to assume that at some time, somewhere some chief executive or another has inappropriately touched a woman’s knee, rubbed another woman’s leg or put his hands down another couple of women’s backs “and places where they had absolutely no business being. We shall call our fictional chief executive “the Old Goat”.

The idea of slapping such a man seems to be based on a fanciful 1950s notion of morality. Our male lead (rather handsome with jutting jaw – so different from our own oleaginous, balding fifty-something fictional chief executive) gets a little fresh with our rather prim heroine. She delivers the slap; it knocks sense into him; he admires her feisty qualities; lust turns to love. There are flowers, a dinner date, a proposal of marriage.

None of those outcomes in reality is likely to occur – nor are they likely to be desired by the victim of our Old Goat’s attentions. The danger of resorting to violence is that it prompts only violence, and Sarah Vine is asking women who have been wronged in this way (touching people without consent and a sexual motive is a sexual assault: see Section 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003) to expose themselves to increased violence.

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Lib Dems could – and should – have put Rennard through disciplinary procedure

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Note: Since this post the Liberal Democrats have gone through all manner of wrangling to ultimately drop the minor disciplinary case against Lord Rennard of bringing the party into disrepute. Tim Farron, party president, has said lessons have been learned and the party had worked hard to “fundamentally change the way our party treats these matters” (Guardian 20 August 2014)

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has apologised and said his party “did not respond in the right way” to the allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against the party’s former chief executive Chris Rennard. Nick Clegg might be well advised to say nothing more. It is possible that the Lib Dems could be on the hook for this debacle – with the matter being bloodily and expensively fought out in court.

If the Lib Dems want to feel a particular chill running down their spine they might look at the recent Supreme Court De La Salle case (The Catholic Child Welfare Society and others [2012] UKSC 56 Judgment (PDF) ) where vicarious liability for sex abuse was extended to a Catholic organisation, the Brothers of the Christian Schools, who supplied the head and other teachers to an approved school.

The organisation was deemed liable even though it did not employ those teachers – they were members, not employees, of the Brothers. The principle established was that liability for members’ actions may extend to an unincorporated society. Rennard is a member (not employee) of the Lib Dems and a political party is an unincorporated society, arguably with “corporate features, including a hierarchy of authority” as described in the De La Salle case. The position is further explained below, but some legal background is useful first.

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University segregation need not be a divisive issue

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UK Prime Minister David Cameron has another bee in his bonnet – sorry: deeply held conviction. This time it is segregation of women from men in talks given by Muslims or in an Islamic context on university premises.

He found guidance issued by Universities UK on this issue (that segregation should only be voluntary and mixed areas be allowed if people want them) to be inadequate given his own passionate belief in human rights especially for Muslim women.

Segregation on grounds of sex is naturally anathema to this product of Eton (where boys all learn together whatever their gender) and the Bullingdon club (girls always welcome in some capacity).

We can’t be sure what Cameron’s exact views are since he has not spoken publicly, but it looks as if he is so opposed to segregation that he rejects UUK’s voluntarist approach and would seem to want to force those attending these talks to sit boy-girl-boy-girl whether they like it or not. Maybe he will draft in some of the police currently suppressing student protests to enforce his emphatic liberal position?

It’s a matter of free speech, according to a Downing Street spokesperson, and Cameron feels very strongly about it. Certainly universities are governed by the 1986 Education (No 2) Act, Section 43(1)  on free speech, which says:

“Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.”

This was Tory legislation to curb students’ “anti-Zionist” and “No platform for fascists” movements. Paradoxically it is now protecting fundamentalist Muslims. But it is very unclear what the segregation issue has to do with free speech as such. Is Cameron suggesting that women in general and Muslim women of western leanings will be put off from going to important talks by ultra-orthodox Muslim speakers? Does “free speech” extend to “free listening to speech”? The talks can go ahead without those women (thus protecting the S.43 rights of “visiting speakers”) and one can’t believe that Cameron really thinks those talks are of such vital significance that the women who opt to boycott them will be missing very much.

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Why Ken Clarke is wrong on the veil in court

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Picture the scene. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called Ken Clarke in on Sunday morning for an important and urgent job. He is without portfolio but that doesn’t mean is without his uses.

“What ho, prime minister! Not chillaxing today?” asks the jovial former Lord Chancellor.

“No, Ken. There’s important business afoot. We need a little air cover. We want you to dominate the news headlines.”

“I’m the man for the job,” beams Ken, he of the “some rapes are more serious than others” claim.

“Great,” says Cameron. “Now, go out and say something about veils. Any old b– – – will do.”

Ken duly complies. It is not certain why he needs to do this important job. It may be a precursor to justice secretary Chris Grayling coming over all “tough on veils” by announcing a ban on them for witnesses giving evidence in court (though a ban is not really within his immediate powers); or it may be to deflect attention from the embarrassing U-turn on migrant visa bonds.

Whatever it is, Ken rises to the challenge. How did he approach this sensitive subject? By blundering in with his size 10 Hush Puppies. In passing he denigrated the attitude of women who wear veils as archaic and strange: “It’s a most peculiar costume for people to adopt in the 21st century.” Read the rest of this entry

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