Marriage discrimination: EAT decides whether dismissal of a Minister based on the breakdown of his marriage can amount to direct marriage discrimination - Gould v St John's Downshire Hill

Summary

The Employment Appeals Tribunal (‘EAT’) has upheld the decision of the Employment Tribunal (‘ET’) that the dismissal of a Church Minister, which related to the breakdown of his marriage, was not marriage discrimination and further confirmed the circumstances in which it could be.

The Law

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) protects people against discrimination on the grounds of nine protected characteristics, one of which is marriage and civil partnership (Section 8 EqA 2010). Direct marriage and civil partnership discrimination occurs where a person (A) treats another (B) less favourably than A treats or would treat others because B is married or a civil partner (section 13(1) EqA 2010).

Facts

The Claimant, who is a Church Minister, was dismissed in August 2016 purportedly because the Respondent lost trust and confidence in him. The Claimant alleged that the actual reason for his dismissal was because of the breakdown of his marriage and that his dismissal amounted to direct marriage discrimination and was unfair.

The EAT has previously been involved with this case when overturning the ET’s decision to strike out the case in 2017 on the basis that it alleged dismissal because of marital difficulties rather than the status of marriage, and so did not engage a protected characteristic. The EAT disagreed and held that the dismissal was alleged to be because of the difficulties and the fact that the claimant was married. For more detail on this decision and for the full facts of the case, please refer to our previous article regarding this decision.

The EAT thereafter remitted the substantive case back to the ET for determination following which, the ET decided that the dismissal was due to a breakdown in trust and confidence. It noted that the breakdown of his marriage was part of the background of events rather than part of the reason for dismissal. It held that the Respondent was instead concerned with his behaviour in the context of that breakdown rather than any moral or religious belief that he could not continue to serve due to the breakdown of his marriage. The Claimant appealed this decision.

Decision

The EAT upheld the decision of the ET, deciding that this is not a case of marriage discrimination.

Importantly, they highlighted the circumstances in which the outcome would have been different. It held that the Claimant’s discrimination claim may have succeeded if the decision to dismiss him had been significantly influenced by a belief that a minister cannot continue to serve if their marriage breaks down. It was further emphasised that the claim could have been successful if it was found that unmarried ministers with similar difficulties were treated more favourably for displaying similar conduct.

Implications

The decision provides useful guidance on direct marriage discrimination and when such claims could succeed. It is also important to be aware of the lack of statutory defence in cases of direct discrimination, compared to indirect discrimination where it is a defence to show that the decision was “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. Therefore, employers making decisions involving marriage or marital status that may be “less favourable” will need to be aware of the risk of a discrimination claim.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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