It is just over five years since the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Obergefell v Hodges (26 June 2015), and just over fifty-one years since the Stonewall riots (28 June 1969). To the many important dates in Pride Month must now be added 15 June 2020, the date of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v Clayton County, which confirmed that is, in fact, illegal to fire an employee because they are homosexual or transgender.
It might seem surprising to many readers of this blog that there was a question about this. In the United States. In 2020. Yet even here in the UK it can hardly be said that employment protections for gay and transgender people have existed since time immemorial. It was only in December 2003, for example, that the UK Government enacted the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003, which prohibited employers from committing direct and indirect discrimination, victimisation and harassment “on grounds of sexual orientation” (for which thanks is owed to the European Union, which mandated such legislation pursuant to the Equal Treatment Framework Directive of November 2000).
It can be said, however, that the legislation in the UK is sufficiently clear to put the question beyond doubt. Since 2010, sexual orientation and gender reassignment have been “protected characteristics” for the purposes of general discrimination law, pursuant to sections 4, 7 and 12 of the Equality Act 2010.
The law in the United States is not so explicit. Rather, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964 makes it “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, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.” The question for the Supreme Court in Bostock was whether the prohibition of discrimination because of an individual’s sex also entailed a prohibition of discrimination on the basis that an employee was gay or transgender.
Three cases were being appealed together, and the facts in each of them were simple, and stark:
Mr Gerald Bostock worked for his local authority (Clayton County) in Georgia as a child welfare advocate. After a decade of employment, during which time the County won national awards for its work, Mr Bostock made the fateful decision to start participation in a recreational gay softball league. He was promptly fired.
Mr Donald Zarda was a sky-diving instructor in New York. He tried to reassure a female customer who had concerns about a tandem skydive with a male instructor by confirming that he was “100% gay”. She complained, and he was dismissed days later.
Ms Aimee Stephens worked in a funeral home in Michigan. At the start of her employment she presented as male. Two years into her employment she underwent psychiatric treatment for “despair and loneliness” and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Her clinicians recommended that she start to live as a woman. Several years later, when she informed her employer that she would be returning to work as a woman after her vacation, she was fired because it was “not going to work out”.
In all three cases the employers openly acknowledged that their motive for dismissing their employees was that they were gay/transgender; but they said that was a wholly lawful thing to do. The plaintiffs argued that it was not, pursuant to a proper reading of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964.
The decision was hotly anticipated. In the United States, the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court is lamentably politicised, and after President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland had been blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate in 2016, and the current occupant of the White House had apparently assured a 5-4 conservative majority by appointing two justices (most recently, following a harrowing confirmation process, Kavanaugh J), socially progressive groups could be forgiven for awaiting the judgment with some trepidation.These background issues are discussed further on the blog here.
On this occasion, they need not have worried. The split of votes was a refreshingly decisive and bipartisan 6-3, including Chief Justice Roberts. What’s more, the majority opinion was written by Gorsuch J, a “conservative justice” appointed in 2017.
The opinions make for a thoroughly enjoyable read (don’t be put off by the 172 pages — it is mostly appendices to Alito J’s dissenting opinion). As a student of English law, I am used to reading judgments which are characterised by temperate language, caveats, a degree of circumspection, or even consternation. In contrast, at least in this case, the opinions of the justices (particularly Gorsuch and Alito JJ) read like the most passionate of essays or written arguments — almost as if they were advocates rather than judges.
Tucked away on page 48 of the Conservative Party 2019 election manifesto, the following passage could be found in a section entitled “Protecting our Democracy”:
After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays. In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.
That is something of a laundry list of many of the most charged constitutional issues faced by the United Kingdom. But of all the matters cited, the one which has received perhaps the most attention of late is the Government’s apparent intention to consider changes to our system of judicial review.
R (Maguire) v HM’s Senior Coroner for Blackpool and Fylde  EWHC 1232 (Admin) – Read Judgment
A three-judge panel of the Divisional Court has re-affirmed that, in general, medical inquests do not engage the State’s positive obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Jackie Maguire had Down’s Syndrome, moderate learning difficulties, and severely compromised cognitive and communication abilities. On 22nd February 2017, she tragically died from a perforated ulcer at the age of 52, having developed symptoms starting with a sore throat around one week previously. For around 20 years prior, she had been living in care, and at the time of her death, following a capacity assessment under sections 1 – 3 of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, her place had been maintained by Blackool City Council in a care home from where she was not allowed to leave without supervision.
The Supreme Court has upheld challenges to the legal regimes for disclosing criminal records in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, finding them to be incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).
R (P, G and W) and Anor v Secretary of State for the Home Department and Anor  UKSC 3 – Read Judgment
Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis v DSD and Anor  UKSC 11 – Read Judgment
In an important decision for UK human rights law, the Supreme Court confirmed on 21st February 2018 that the police have a positive operational duty – owed to the individual victims of certain crimes – to conduct an effective investigation under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The decision stems from a claim brought by two victims of John Worboys, a London black cab driver who committed “a legion of sexual offences on women” between 2003 and 2008.
The victims, identified in the proceedings as DSD and NBV, sought damages from the Metropolitan Police, due to various failures in the course of investigating their complaints. The action was brought under sections 7 and 8 of the Human Rights Act (“HRA”) 1998, which enables claims for damages to be pursued in the English Courts where there has been a breach of an article of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). This approach was taken because a “standard” action in the tort of negligence would be doomed to failure. There is a long line of authority, still holding firm (although regularly probed and challenged), which provides that police are immune from suit due to negligent failures in the conduct of many of their public functions, largely for policy reasons.
In an anonymised judgment dated 22nd January – but only recently published – the Court of Appeal underscored the importance of the right to privacy in the context of sexual activity.
In the modern digital age – an age when society is grappling with “sexting” and “revenge porn”, and one’s follies may be photographed and uploaded to Facebook for friends and family (and others) to see for years to come – the nature and scope of privacy, and the public’s expectations in relation to it, are being consistently challenged and redefined. This case may therefore be seen as a welcome re-affirmation of the basic point that, at least in normal circumstances, one’s sex-life is inherently private, and not a topic for public consumption. Continue reading →
The Supreme Court of the United States has decided that same-sex couples have a constitutionally protected right to marry.
In the history of American jurisprudence, there are a handful of cases which are so significant that they will be known to all US law students, much of the domestic population at large, and even large segments of the international community. Brown v Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in schools, is one example. Roe v Wade, which upheld the right of women to access abortion serves, is another. To that list may now be added the case of Obergefell v Hodges.
Under that provision, he issued a certificate which effectively vetoed a decision of the Upper Tribunal that a number of items of correspondence sent by Prince Charles to seven Government Departments (characterised as “advocacy correspondence” as opposed to personal letters) had to be disclosed to Mr Rob Evans of the Guardian newspaper.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has rejected a challenge to a French law which prohibits the wearing of veils in public. The ruling is, of course, of great political and media interest, but it is also significant from a legal perspective. In a lengthy and detailed judgment, the Court ultimately accepts that, as a matter of principle, a government can legitimately interfere with the rights of individuals in pursuit of social and cultural cohesion.
On 11th April 2011, Law no. 2010-1192 came into force in the French Republic. Subject to certain limited exceptions, the law prohibits anyone from wearing any clothing which conceals their face when in public places, on pain of a 150 euro fine, and/or compulsory citizenship classes. Whilst phrased in general terms, the most obvious effect of the law, and its clear intention, is to ban the niqab (a veil that leaves only the eyes visible) and the burka (a loose garment covering the entire body with a mesh screen over the face).
Elosta v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  EWHC 3397 – Read Judgment
The High Court has held that a person detained for questioning under the Terrorism Act 2000 is entitled to consult with a solicitor in person prior to answering questions.
The right to consult with a lawyer before one is interviewed by law enforcement officers might be fairly characterised as a “pop culture” right. Reality television shows, crime dramas, even block buster films (I’m thinking Neo in the first Matrix film – pictured) have all played a part in ensuring that the right to legal advice in that context is ingrained in the consciousness of the masses.
This case dealt with a specific and rather technical variation on that theme.
Wright v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis  EWHC 2739 (QB) – Read Judgment
Image via Richard Millett’s Blog
The High Court has found that the containment of a protester in a designated protesting pen for seventy five minutes was not unlawful at common law, nor under the Human Rights Act 1998.
On 30th March 2011, a seminar marking sixty years of British-Israeli diplomatic relations took place in Chatham House in St James’ Square, London. The Israeli President, Mr Shimon Peres, was to be in attendance, and a group of protesters from the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign took the opportunity to demonstrate outside the seminar venue.
In rulings that have the potential to influence the jurisprudence of courts around the world, the Supreme Court of the United States has handed down two landmark decisions pertaining to the issue of same-sex marriage.
The right of gay and lesbian couples to wed remains one of the most controversial and debated civil rights issues of our time. However, the ground has been shifting with increasing rapidity in recent years and months. The direction of change is clear. There are now fifteen countries which permit or will permit same-sex marriages, including most recently Uruguay, New Zealand and France. With bills steadily progressing through the Parliamentary process, there is a strong possibility that England, Wales and Scotland may soon be added to the list.
R (on the application of Sandiford) v Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs  168 (Admin) – read judgment
On 22 April 2013 the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in refusing to pay for a lawyer to assist Lindsay Sandiford as she faces the death penalty for drug offences in Indonesia. Last Wednesday, they handed down the reasons for their decision.
On 19 May 2012 Lindsay Sandiford was arrested at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali following the discovery of almost five kilograms of cocaine in the lining of her suitcase. A number of southeast Asian countries take a notoriously hard line on drugs offences, and following her conviction on 19 December 2012, Ms Sandiford was sentenced to death. Many media outlets have reported that in Indonesia, death sentences are generally carried out by a firing squad.
Litigation relating to information rights can sometimes seem very dry and obscure, entailing lengthy analysis of the merits of public authorities disclosing or withholding information which is highly specialised or obtuse, and of little real interest to the general population. But this case – the case of the “Black Spider Letters” – really is a fascinating one, involving an examination not just of the legislative provisions relating to the disclosure of information, but also a consideration of the existence and extent of constitutional conventions pertaining to the role of the monarchy in government. At the same time, it has the potential to generate such controversy as to make for perfect tabloid fodder. It has been the subject of international news coverage. And it’s not over yet.
It all stems from a request for information made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“the Regulations”) by a Guardian journalist, Mr Rob Evans. In April 2005 he wrote to seven Government Departments, and asked for a list of correspondence between Prince Charles and the ministers for those Departments between 1 September 2004 and 1 April 2005, as well as copies of each piece of correspondence. Many of the Departments initially relied on exemptions contained in the Act in order to refuse to confirm or deny whether or not they held such information. Ultimately however, all the Departments admitted that such correspondence did exist, but they refused to disclose it.
The Court of Appeal has ordered the the disclosure of serious allegations made against a parent by an anonymous third party in contact proceedings. In doing so, it has demonstrated the correct approach to balancing the many different human rights considerations involved.
Every day, family courts across the UK are required to determine the difficult question of how much contact there should be between a child and his or her parents. It is the norm for these cases to be factually complicated and emotionally draining. However, this case was exceptional. It was an appeal relating contact proceedings in respect of a ten year old girl (A). The court had made various orders for contact over a number of years, with a final order being made in 2009 that the she was to stay with her father for two weeks each February and four weeks each summer.
This blog is maintained for information purposes only. It is not intended to be a source of legal advice and must not be relied upon as such. Blog posts reflect the views and opinions of their individual authors, not of chambers as a whole.