Policing boundaries- social policing and legal remedies

A common retort to the concern that self-identification threatens women’s single sex spaces is to say that legal mechanisms would still exist to protect women from men who would abuse the system and to provide redress when those protections are breached.  This argument is flawed.  It fails to take into account the practical difficulties that would arise in invoking those provisions.  It fails to recognise how social policing would be diminished and women would be compelled to lower their boundaries.  

What is social policing? Any woman will recognise the steps that we take to keep ourselves safe in public spaces: telling a friend when we are making a journey alone, pretending to be on the phone when in a train carriage with a strange man, crossing the street if a man is walking behind us are but a few of the behaviours that many women practise as a matter of reflex.  Included in these behaviours are measures related to communal areas: if we see a male-bodied person in the women’s changing rooms at the gym we will challenge him and ask him to leave, we will tell a member of staff, we will warn other women entering the room, we will postpone undressing until he flees in embarrassment at his mistake or is removed by the gym staff. The chances are that it is an innocent mistake and that man poses no threat to our safety, but just like crossing the road when a man is walking behind us, we would rather not take the chance.

Self-identification forces us to lower our boundaries around all male people, whether genuine transwomen or men who would pretend to be one.  It asks us to mentally place that man in the category of “woman: unlikely to be a threat” rather than “man: a potential risk”, on nothing more than his word that he is the former.  This is not about whether transwomen are a threat to other women; it’s about the fact that the removal of objective criteria for what it means to be a transwoman makes it impossible in that scenario to draw that distinction.  If the response to “This is the ladies, please can you leave” is “I’m a woman”, then challenge to that assertion becomes difficult. Even the gym staff will probably have been coached that it would be discriminatory to ask a transwoman to provide a copy of their GRC, so best not ask the question.  It might be a lie, but who wants to be seen as a bigot for falsely challenging and humiliating a genuine transwoman? We saw this exact scenario play out in the Wi Spa incident.  Better not to challenge, not to tell the staff, not to warn other women and to think twice about returning to that gym.

What legal redress could individuals or businesses invoke to protect single-sex spaces?  Let us look at an example of a gym changing room.  

In criminal law, section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 creates an offence of ‘Exposure’ where a person (a) intentionally exposes his genitals, and (b) intends that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.  If a man is encountered in the female changing rooms exposing his genitals, a prosecution would be reasonably straightforward: the lack of legitimate purpose in being in a state of undress in that place creates a presumption that he would know that a woman would be likely to be caused alarm or distress by seeing male genitals.  Challenging a defence that he was acting with benign intent would not be difficult.  Little would be required from a prosecution witness other than to testify that they saw male genitals and that the man concerned did not immediately act to remedy his mistake.  

However, if that same person states that he is  a woman and has a legitimate purpose in using the changing rooms to get changed, then a prosecution becomes more difficult. The presumption of mal-intent falls away.  That is not to say that a prosecution is impossible: as in the WiSpa incident, if the intruder is in a state of arousal then it would be hard to argue lack of intent. But it is likely that the prosecution witness would face much more rigorous questioning by the defence: What did you see? How long for? Are you sure (s)he was aroused? Aren’t you just a bigot for being alarmed at sharing a changing room with this poor transwoman who just wanted to get changed?  

A two-tier system for offenders is effectively created: a presumption of mal-intent if the man identifies as such, and no presumption if he identifies as transgender; but in either case the women he encounters will have observed exactly the same male body.  It is well known that ‘minor’ sexual offending such as flashing is frequently a precursor to more serious crimes.  Self-ID creates a situation where men can commit those offences with impunity.

Civil law, and specifically the exceptions contained in part 27 of Schedule 3 of the Equality Act 2010 permit organisations such as gyms to provide single-sex facilities.  They are also likely to have a contractual term for the use of their gym that members are not to harass, alarm or intimidate other users, and in theory any member beaching this condition by using changing facilities designated for the opposite sex could be banned from the gym and refused re-entry without the gym unlawfully discriminating against him.  

However, as our earlier blog explains, anything other than a blanket enforcement of the single-sex space is likely to be unworkable in practice.  Not only does this create a minefield for the gym workers to navigate, but it makes it difficult for the female patrons to object as well.  It becomes impossible for a female patron to act on those feelings of unease that have caused many a woman to take precautionary measures: instead action can only be taken once the unwelcome conduct has taken place.  

There is no obvious civil law route for a woman to take direct action against a man for using female spaces or services.  Her best course of action would be to bring a claim for direct or indirect discrimination against the service provider in relation to her protected characteristic of sex and/or where applicable, her religious belief.  She could argue that the failure to provide appropriate single-sex facilities to change subjects her to a detriment upon which a claim for indirect discrimination can be founded.  If (as seems to be an emerging trend) the serviced provide designates the facilities as ‘male’ and ‘gender neutral’, she may have a claim for direct discrimination. 

But resorting to the law is expensive, time-consuming and can be emotionally challenging.  Some women will simply limit their engagement with sports, with recreation and with spending time outside of the home.  

Sex matters in drawing comparisons

How a false assumption led an employment tribunal to wrongly find an NHS Trust guilty of discrimination

A guest post by Anya Palmer, barrister

In a recent case, V v Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the Leeds employment tribunal cleared the employer and several of its managers of a large number of claims of disability discrimination, gender reassignment discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

However, the tribunal concluded that the employer did discriminate against the Claimant when a manager asked the Claimant questions about removing his underwear at work.

In its judgment the tribunal describes the Claimant as “a transgender woman” and refers to him throughout as “she”. I will not be doing that, because in my view the use of this polite fiction directly led the tribunal to get the Claimant’s sex wrong and therefore to deploy the wrong comparison and get the law wrong.

We are told in the judgment that the Claimant was “currently transitioning”, but no information is given as to what that actually meant or how far the Claimant had got with it.

However, we are told that at the Claimant’s request, staff were told in writing that the Claimant would be joining their team, that the Claimant was transitioning from male to female and that he did not want to be asked questions about that. They were also told that the Claimant would be using a cubicle in the women’s changing rooms and did not want to be asked questions about that either.

It seems likely, therefore, that this was a case where it would be obvious to everyone that the Claimant was not a woman, and the Claimant’s colleagues were being warned that they should play along and not object or ask questions.

The judgment says the Claimant had been the victim of arson attacks outside work. Here is a BBC interview with a transgender person in Sheffield who was the target of an arson attack in 2019. It seems quite likely that “Amy” in this interview and the Claimant are the same person. The arson attack is appalling. But if this is indeed the Claimant, he does not (as of June 2020, about the same time as he started work for the Trust) remotely pass as female, and this is who the women were being told they had to share a changing room with and not ask questions.

The employer organised bespoke training on transgender and gender identity issues for everyone in the catering unit where the Claimant would be working. The tribunal notes that during the training some concerns were raised by female staff:

Some expressed concerns, mainly female members of staff worried about sharing the ladies changing room with a transgender woman. Mrs Edwards tried to address those concerns by explaining that there was no evidence of transgender women being a threat or causing any issues in the workplace, and that there needed to be a balance of rights and respect for someone who wanted to live her life completely as a woman.

We only have this third-hand description of how the women themselves expressed their concerns. It seems unlikely that the women expressed their concerns by referring to the claimant as a “transgender woman”. It is far more likely that they expressed concerns that they were being asked to share the women’s changing room with a man. But there are no findings on what the women themselves said.

What is clear is the women were not being asked if they agreed to the Claimant using the women’s changing room. They were being told that he could and would. Lip service was paid by the manager who delivered the training to a “balance of rights”, but it is clear that their right to any say in the matter had already been written off. 

It is not clear why, because it is not the case in law that a trans-identified male at an early stage in their transition must be allowed to use the women’s facilities: see the Court of Appeal judgment in Croft v Royal Mail Group plc [2003] EWCA (Civ) 1045. But perhaps the Trust was taking advice from people who would not mention that case, who would advise that the Claimant must be treated as if he were a woman from the outset.

*****

The events that led to the finding of discrimination took place a year later. On 10 June 2021 the Claimant spoke to a Mrs Townsend, a Catering Assistant, asking to go home as he said he felt hot and sweaty and this was making him feel ill. He told her he was so hot he had taken his underwear off, and made a wringing motion with his hands. 

Mrs Townsend went to see Mrs Hawkshaw, Catering Manager, because she herself did not have the authority to allow the Claimant to go home, and she recounted the whole conversation to Mrs Hawkshaw. She then made a note of the conversation.

In tribunal the Claimant denied making the remark or the gesture, but the tribunal preferred Mrs Townsend’s evidence:

137.   … She had no issue with the Claimant and no reason to make this account up. She made a note of the conversation on the day. We found that it was accurate. It seemed to the Tribunal that the Claimant did have a tendency to blur appropriate boundaries, and perhaps to “overshare” with her colleagues. We noted that she denied making the comments and gesture as soon as she was asked about it a few days later, but we still found that it was more likely than not that the Claimant had made the comment and gesture.

The Claimant was then off work until 16 June 2021, when Mrs Hawkshaw held a return to work interview with the Claimant and told him he would have to attend a stage 3 attendance management meeting. The Claimant reacted very badly to this, going and shouting in front of staff and customers that he would take the Trust to court.

On 25 June 2021, Mrs Hawkshaw had another meeting with the Claimant to address various issues, and in this meeting she asked the Claimant about the underwear remark and the wringing gesture.

It seems that what moved Mrs Hawkshaw to ask questions about that now, two weeks after the Claimant had made the remark, was that the day before this meeting, Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report that the Claimant had been seen “naked from the waist down” in the women’s changing room. Mrs Hawkshaw had been given a statement about this. Unfortunately the tribunal does not tell us any more about this incident, which seems like it might just be relevant to why Mrs Hawkshaw questioned the Claimant about removing underwear at work, as indeed the tribunal itself concludes.

Mrs Hawkshaw did not ask the Claimant directly about the changing room allegation, but she did ask the Claimant in general terms whether he took his underwear off at work.

The Claimant found these questions embarrassing, and subsequently raised a grievance, and later brought a claim of direct discrimination based on gender reassignment in respect of having been asked them.

The tribunal dealt with this claim as follows:

152. …the Tribunal found that the Claimant had proved facts from which it could conclude, in the absence of an adequate explanation, that the reason Mrs Hawkshaw had asked her those questions about her underwear was because she is a transgender woman. Those facts were:

152.1 The questions asked were not simply about what had happened on 10 June 2021 but were more general questions about whether the Claimant wore or changed her underwear at work and whether she was ever inappropriately dressed at work.

….

152.4    Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report about the Claimant being naked from the waist down in the changing room before asking the questions. She did not mention that specifically, but the questions she asked seemed to be connected with that as much as with the conversation with Mrs Townsend.

152.5     A concern about the Claimant’s state of undress in the changing rooms was likely to be connected with the fact that she is a transgender woman. This was a communal changing room with a shower cubicle. It did not seem to the Tribunal likely that there would have been a concern about a cisgender woman in a state of undress while changing in such a changing room. [emphasis added]

153.   The Tribunal therefore found that the burden shifted to the Trust to prove that the reason for Mrs Hawkshaw’s line of questioning was not the Claimant’s transgender status. The Trust did not do so…. The Tribunal therefore concluded that Mrs Hawkshaw asked the questions because of a concern that the Claimant as a transgender woman might be in a state of undress in the female changing room. That was because of gender reassignment. Mrs Hawkshaw would not have asked the questions of a cisgender woman. [emphasis added]

I will argue that this was the wrong comparator. To do so I first need to explain how comparisons work in discrimination law.

*****

To show that he or she has been discriminated against because of a protected characteristic, a claimant needs to show that he or she was treated less favourably than a comparator who does not have that protected characteristic.

So if you are a woman claiming sex discrimination, you need to show that a man was treated more favourably in the same (or not materially different) circumstances.

Or if there isn’t an actual comparator, you can argue (based on evidence) that a hypothetical man would have been treated more favourably in the same circumstances.

As a matter of logical inference, if a woman was treated less favourably than a man was treated (or a hypothetical man would have been treated) in the same circumstances, the reason for the less favourable treatment is the woman’s sex.

And so it goes for each of the nine characteristics that are protected under the Equality Act 2010: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The requirement that the circumstances must be the same, or not materially different, is an important feature of this comparison exercise. You have to compare like with like, and this is expressly stated in the Equality Act 2010 (and always has been since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975).

Section 23(1) of the Equality Act 2010 provides as follows:

(1) On a comparison of cases for the purposes of section 13, 14, or 19 there must be no material difference between the circumstances relating to each case.

Section 13 defines direct discrimination, so this requirement applies in any case where direct discrimination is claimed.

In Shamoon v Chief Constable of the RUC [2003] ICR 337 HL, the claimant, a senior police officer, brought a claim for sex discrimination, and she sought to compare how she had been treated by her line manager with how two male colleagues had been treated. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal held that the two male officers were not valid comparators, because there was a material difference between her circumstances and theirs – there had been complaints about the Claimant, but not about the comparators. This was relevant to her line manager’s treatment of her. The House of Lords upheld that conclusion.

In the House of Lords, Lord Scott of Foscote explained the way that a comparison is used to establish direct discrimination, and he then said this:

110.  In summary, the comparator required for the purpose of the statutory definition of discrimination must be a comparator in the same position in all material respects as the victim save only that he, or she, is not a member of the protected class. [emphasis added] 

The way this applies in the case of a trans-identified male who has not obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) was confirmed by the High Court in R (on the application of Green) v Secretary of State for Justice.

The claimant, a male prisoner serving a life sentence for murdering his wife, had recently decided he wanted to undergo gender reassignment, and he sought judicial review because he was refused permission to obtain “wigs, intimate prostheses and tights” (for security reasons). The claimant complained that this was in breach of prison service policy, and also complained that it was unlawful discrimination contrary to the Equality Act.

The judge dealt with the discrimination part of the claim as follows:

65.     This is a direct discrimination claim under section 13(1) of the Equality Act 2010 and, as the Governor is exercising a public function, section 29(6) engages.

66.     A comparator has to be found in order for there to be discrimination or for the claimant to show she has had less favourable treatment. The claimant asserts the comparator should be a female prisoner; whereas the governor contends it should be a male prisoner. There can be no doubt the claimant has a protected characteristic — gender reassignment. The claimant is, however, male. The only possible comparator is to a male prisoner who is not undergoing gender reassignment.

67.     It seems to me that I must approach the discrimination issues in this way:

(1)  Has the claimant been treated less favourably by the Governor than he would treat others in the exercise of his public function?

(2)  If he has so treated the claimant, was this due to the claimant’s gender reassignment?

68.     Frankly, it is almost beyond argument that the only comparator is a male Category B prisoner at HMP Frankland. I am influenced by the judgment of the Court of Appeal in Croft v Royal Mail Group plc [2003] EWCA (Civ) 1045. I find it impossible to see how a female prisoner can be regarded as the appropriate comparator. The claimant is a man seeking to become a woman — but he is still of the male gender and a male prisoner. He is in a male prison and until there is a Gender Recognition Certificate, he remains male. A woman prisoner cannot conceivably be the comparator as the woman prisoner has (either by birth or election) achieved what the claimant wishes. Male to female transsexuals are not automatically entitled to the same treatment as women — until they become women.

69.     A male prisoner (who wishes to remain male as most do) does not need to express his gender identity in any purposeful way. He does so innately through the male clothes he wears and certainly does so via prison clothing. Transsexual prisoners are treated differently (and wish to be so) and as such have a number of advantages in terms of clothing and lifestyle not available to the remainder of the male prison population absent privileges.

70.     I have no hesitation in saying the correct comparator is a male prisoner in Category B at HMP Frankland. I am utterly unconvinced that the claimant has been treated less favourably than such a prisoner — indeed the reverse. Consequently, the second question I posed does not arise.

In short: the correct comparator for a trans-identified male who does not have a GRC, and is claiming gender reassignment discrimination, is a male who does not identify as trans.

The correct comparator is a person who does not have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. But the comparator should be the same in all other material respects. So if the claimant is male, the comparator must also be male.

*****

How do we apply Shamoon and Green to the facts in V v Sheffield Teaching Hospitals?

The Claimant in V was not a woman, however managers and the tribunal refer to him. He was born male. He remained male. The fact that he now identified as “a transgender woman” did not change this. Self ID is not yet the law in this country, however much Stonewall and others try to make out that is the case.

The judgment does not say whether the Claimant had obtained a GRC, but if he had obtained one it seems likely that he would have mentioned that in evidence and relied on it, that the tribunal in turn would mention that in its fact finding, and indeed the tribunal might have considered in its reasoning what effect, if any, that had when making the comparison.

So it seems highly likely that the Claimant did not have a GRC and remained legally male, as well as biologically male.

The correct comparator would therefore be a male who did not have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

So why did the tribunal draw a comparison between how the Claimant was treated and how a “cisgender woman” would have been treated?

There are two possibilities here:

(1) The tribunal did not understand that the comparator should be the same as the Claimant in all respects except for the protected characteristic, and so the comparator should be of the same sex as the Claimant; or

(2) The tribunal wrongly assumed that the Claimant was female, and therefore concluded the comparator should be female.

The tribunal does not give any explanation as to how it decided that the correct comparator was a “cisgender woman”, so it’s difficult to say for sure which of the above is the answer, but I strongly suspect the answer is (2).

The tribunal is very likely to have considered the Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB). This is a sort of diversity and inclusion handbook for the judiciary. It provides guidance on how to run the hearing. It is not a guide to the law. It has no status in law. And yet it is highly influential. It advises courts and tribunals to always use a trans person’s chosen name and pronouns regardless of the reality or their legal status:

It should be possible to respect a person’s gender identity and their present name for nearly all court and tribunal purposes, regardless of whether they have obtained legal recognition of their gender by way of a Gender Recognition Certificate.

In other words – the court or tribunal is advised to be guided by self ID. If a male person says he identifies as a woman, then regardless of whether he has obtained a GRC, regardless whether he has even undergone any physical transition, the court should refer to him as a woman and use the pronouns “she” and “her.”

It’s the same advice that the Trust gave to its employees. Act like V is a woman. Don’t ask questions.

Trans women are women.

The problem is that this is, essentially, a political position which does not represent the law anywhere in the UK. Self ID is not the law. But the idea that a man is a woman if he says so is being pushed by activists to managers and decision makers in institutions up and down the land. It is happening in the NHS. And it is happening in the judiciary. (For a full analysis of the problems with the Equal Treatment Bench Book in this respect, see Prejudging the Transgender Controversy by barrister Thomas Chacko.)

There is no reminder to the judges who consult the Equal Treatment Bench Book that there may be cases in which it falls to them, as part of their job, to consider what sex the claimant is, and at that point they need to forget about polite fictions and determine whether the claimant, as a matter of fact and law, is a man or a woman – however unpalatable it may be to the claimant if the answer is that the claimant is male.

(Nor is there any warning to counsel that the judge may consult the ETBB. In the preliminary hearing in Forstater v CGD Europe on whether the claimant’s belief was a protected belief, I was not aware that the employment judge had consulted the ETBB until I read about that in the judgment. I had no opportunity to address the judge on that. Obviously this should not have happened, but happen it did. By way of advice to any counsel dealing with these cases – be aware that the judge may consult the ETBB without telling you. If there is anything you want to say about the ETBB, make sure you say it. Don’t wait to be asked.)

I suspect the tribunal in this case did as it was told by the ETBB (and/or any diversity training the judge may have had) and referred to the claimant throughout as “a transgender woman” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”. And in doing so it forgot that this polite fiction did not mean the claimant was in fact a woman.

So when it came to look for a non-transgender comparator, it assumed the comparator would be a non-transgender woman.

*****

How did this affect the tribunal’s conclusions on this issue?

The tribunal concluded that

152. the Tribunal found that the Claimant had proved facts from which it could conclude, in the absence of an adequate explanation, that the reason Mrs Hawkshaw had asked her those questions about her underwear was because she is a transgender woman... [emphasis added]

152.4 Mrs Hawkshaw had received a report about the Claimant being naked from the waist down in the changing room before asking the questions. She did not mention that specifically, but the questions she asked seemed to be connected with that as much as with the conversation with Mrs Townsend.

152.5 A concern about the Claimant’s state of undress in the changing rooms was likely to be connected with the fact that she is a transgender woman. This was a communal changing room with a shower cubicle. It did not seem to the Tribunal likely that there would have been a concern about a cisgender woman in a state of undress while changing in such a changing room. [emphasis added]

153. The Tribunal therefore found that the burden shifted to the Trust to prove that the reason for Mrs Hawkshaw’s line of questioning was not the Claimant’s transgender status.

The flaw in the tribunal’s reasoning is obvious once we consider the question the tribunal should have asked:

Was Mrs Hawkshaw likely to have been concerned about a non-transgender male in a state of undress while using the women’s changing room?

Well of course she would. Because it was a women’s changing room, and the non-trans male comparator is… male.

(One could posit as part of the relevant circumstances for making this comparison, that the comparison should be with a non-transgender man who, for some exceptional reason, had been given permission to use the women’s changing room. Even so, it is obvious that if that man were then seen “naked from the waist down” by women using the changing room, that would have been reported to Mrs Hawkshaw, and she in turn would have had concerns, especially if she knew that he had also, on an earlier occasion, told a female supervisor that he was so hot he had removed his underwear, and had made a wringing motion.)

If the correct comparison is used, I cannot see how the tribunal would have concluded that the burden shifted to the Respondent to explain the difference in treatment. There is no difference in treatment once the proper comparator is used. Any report of a man making comments to female colleagues about removing his underwear and then seen naked from the waist down in the women’s changing room would have given rise to the same concern.

The respondent NHS Trust therefore has, in my view, a clear ground of appeal in respect of the one finding of gender reassignment discrimination made against it.

I hope the Trust will appeal. It is only by challenging decisions like this one on appeal that tribunals will hopefully learn to think through what does and does not properly constitute gender reassignment discrimination.


What Finance Can Tell Us About the Trans Self-ID Debate

Guest Blog by Cyclefree, a lawyer/investigator specialising in financial services and whistleblowing investigations.

Financial scandals have the same features and failings occurring, repeatedly. What is concerning is to see these in a very different setting: the debate over trans self-ID, specifically, the Scottish government’s proposed GRA reforms.

Financial Lessons

At the heart of all scandals are conflicts of interest and self-delusion: believing what you want to be true and fitting facts to your belief.

The City’s 1987 Big Bang abolished restrictive barriers to facilitate competition. What this ignored was the resulting creation of ever larger financial institutions, creating multiple conflicts of interest between institutions, their clients, between clients and between different business areas. Internal Chinese walls tried to manage those conflicts. Self-regulation and — post the Guinness, Maxwell and Barings scandals — light-touch regulation were meant to do the rest. They did not work.

Why? Financiers deluded themselves into believing their own publicity — the myth of “star” traders, that they had discovered a new paradigm which meant that they were now able to manage risk so effectively that they could take more of it on, doing away with previous controls. They thought themselves so essential to the economy they could do pretty much what they liked. Politicians supported them in this delusion because it suited them. Finance lied to itself and others when problems arose: these were the proverbial “one or two” bad apples, not representative, it was unkind to tar everyone else with their brush etc. It did not correctly identify the risks it was running so did not deal with them properly or at all. We are all still paying the consequences (Note 1).

The law was clear enough. But the prevailing culture undermined it. Ethical blindness developed. When law and culture are at odds, it is usually the latter which prevails. Social contagion and conformity are more effective at determining behaviour than the strict letter of the law.

Several dangerous practices resulted:

  1. Rules were pushed to their limits, their spirit and intention ignored. “How do we do this?”, “Find me a way to do this”, “Where does it say I can’t do this? were the questions asked. Few understood the maxim: “Ask yourself not just whether you can do something. But whether you should.
  2. Nor was enough attention paid to the next question: “Why?” / “What are the disadvantages/risks?” The latter were either described as insignificant or manageable or, worst of all, said not to exist. Be very wary indeed when someone tells you that there are no disadvantages to a desired course, especially when this comes from those promoting it. The Mandy Rice-Davies dictum applies here.
  3. It became difficult to challenge even when issues arose. In virtually all scandals, there are people who know that something is not right, try to speak up and, if they do so, are ignored. There are other red flags as well, the common factor being that they are usually ignored, minimised or rationalised away. A culture of refusing to listen, of making people scared to challenge or ask “why” will make problems more likely to happen — and likely worse than they need be when they do erupt.
  4. Due diligence and verification were meant to be the way problematic issues could be identified. But too often this was not done properly, was seen as a tick-boxing exercise or its results ignored. So it became easy for bad actors to bypass these controls. “I am who I say I am” is the modus operandi of pretty much every financial fraudster there has ever been. Think of Bernie Madoff. Roger Levitt. Robert Maxwell. Ruja Ignatova, the crypto “Queen”. Markus Braun of Wirecard (Note 2). And not just financial — see Jimmy Savile. What they all also do is make it difficult to check their claims: via obscure accounting, layers of offshore companies, legal threats. Or just making it socially unacceptable to challenge or question.
  5. Conflicts of interest were either left unaddressed or not properly managed. More often it was assumed that the interests of the banks, its staff and its customers, as well as wider society, were one and the same and, indeed, could not be in conflict. The financial sector forgot that it was primarily there to serve others, not itself. The interests of those affected if matters went wrong were not sufficiently taken into account.
  6. More was seen as better. Most financial instruments which led banks into disaster started out as something worthwhile. Credit Default Swaps were originally devised as a means by which banks could minimise their risk i.e., by insuring against a company’s credit-worthiness. Then they came to be seen as products which could be traded very profitably. Rather than minimising risk, they ended up creating huge additional and poorly understood risks.
  7. Not just poorly understood but misdescribed — either because it suited those selling the products or because people had persuaded themselves that they were indeed risk free. But just because something is described as risk free does not make it so. What something is called does not change underlying material reality.

Much has changed in recent years. The focus is on properly identifying, understanding and managing risks, closing loopholes (if one exists it will be used), on trying to avoid the creation of conflicts of interests and, where these are inevitable, managing them properly.

There have been two important changes above all:

  • Creating a culture of speaking up about problems before they become crises to be managed.
  • Understanding that you cannot simply trust but must also verify. The level of verification needed is based on the assessment of the risk to and vulnerability of those affected by any failings. But the requirement is for more verification. Not less. And definitely not none at all.

There will always be bad actors. To think otherwise is naïve. And dangerous. Trying to root them out is playing Whack-A-Mole. But that steps must always be taken to prevent the former operating and risks becoming real are not in doubt.

GRA Reform

The debate is centred on trans people and their human rights, without ever stating what rights are missing. It assumes: (1) anyone should have the right to change gender; (2) only the needs of those wanting to do so are relevant. What is not asked is ask why anyone should. Nor whether everyone should. Nor what the impact on others may be.

The reform removes the requirement for a medical diagnosis (partly because of long delays getting one). Anyone over the age of 16 born or living in Scotland can change gender by making a self-declaration — with no verification of any kind. This is presented as a simple upgrade rather than a fundamental recasting making it something very different. (It is the equivalent of turning an obscure product designed for a limited purpose into a highly risky instrument traded by those whose motives may be self-serving or malicious.)

It repeats finance’s most serious mistakes:

  • Creating a loophole and an unmanageable conflict of interest by short-circuiting the process.
  • Abandoning any verification. The assumption is that no-one will ever lie or act maliciously or misuse the process for an unintended purpose.
  • Believing that a favoured group can be automatically trusted and allowed to behave freely without any controls.

Both of these are dangerously misguided, unsafe assumptions which do not survive a moment’s contact with reality.

  • Stating what you would like to be true (“Transwomen are women”) and assuming that changing a description changes reality. A man calling himself a woman but with a male body is self-evidently not the same as a woman with a female body. Legal nomenclature says nothing useful about risk.
  • Convincing yourself that there are no or few risks and so not identifying them accurately and ignoring or minimising any evidence or concerns suggesting otherwise.
  • Not assessing the impact on those likely to be harmed if matters go wrong.

The consequences are similar:

  • Substituting one value at the expense of others, equally important. The City’s “golden goose” revenues were extremely attractive. The costs of its behaviour, costs now being paid, were ignored. Now “inclusivity” is all important, with little regard for who might be included and who might thereby be or feel excluded. Safeguarding — which necessitates excluding some by discriminating on the basis of risk — is undermined.
  • Challenge and scrutiny are not only not encouraged but viewed with distaste and alarm. See Ms Sturgeon’s statement that objections are “not valid” — even before any consultation process has started. Seeking to rely on existing legal single sex exemptions is seen as offensive, phobic or bigoted. How they are to be preserved if self-ID happens is not explained.
  • The possible impact on others is not considered. Gender reassignment does not require surgical intervention. Since it will be available to any man or boy older than 16 virtually on demand, it means that there will be men legally treated as women retaining all the physical attributes of men. Since no verification that such men have dysphoria will be needed, any risk assessment should assume that the process could be used by those without dysphoria or with malicious aims.
  • This has not been done. The impact on women and girls as a class in the round is simply not considered. The risks are hand waved away; any evidence of risks (Note 3) or current research into what the risks might be are ignored or misinterpreted (Note 4).
  • Instead, the Scottish government announces that such risks cannot exist. See Shona Robison, MSP and Equalities Minister responsible for the proposed Bill in Holyrood on 3 March 2022:

There is no evidence that predatory and abusive men have ever had to pretend to be anything else to carry out abusive and predatory behaviour.

This is an extraordinarily ignorant statement. If there is one thing we know about sexual predators, it is that they will use whatever loopholes and opportunities exist, including pretending to be what they are not. Ample evidence confirms this (Note 5).

This statement is a classic example of saying what you want to be true, what you have to believe to justify what you want to do. It assumes both that trans people, as a group cannot, by definition, contain bad actors and that bad actors will never abuse a loophole or pretend to be something they aren’t. It is not a statement of fact. But of belief. It is self-delusion on a colossal scale.

This self-delusion — both about the nature of the reform and the absence of risks arising from it — bakes dishonesty from the start into the proposal and consultation process. That lack of honesty — about what you are doing, about the harm that has been caused and the potential risks, about the need to balance the rights of different groups, about the need to protect the most vulnerable if matters go wrong — means that, eventually, just as in finance, problems will arise.

But their cost will not be counted in money but in real harm to women.

Notes

Note 1: For a fuller description of City behaviour see http://www2.politicalbetting.com/index.php/archives/2017/01/20/cyclefree-asks-are-banks-the-new-unions/

Note 2: The FT’s account of the Wirecard scandal is riveting: an example of a fraud, whistleblowers and the extraordinary legal and other lengths the fraudsters went to to stop the FT’s investigation, aided by the German regulators who did not want to believe that their “superstar” digital bank was less than it seemed.

Note 3: The Cass Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People is at Cass Review — Independent Review of Gender Identity Services for Children and Young People (independent-review.uk). Its interim report was published on 10 March 2022.

Or see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sex-offenders-free-to-abuse-children-after-changing-id-bpdlx59p0.

See also paragraphs 13 and 14 of the High Court judgment on the lawfulness of the policy allowing transgender women convicted of sexual or violent offences against women to be housed in a women’s prison — https://www.bailii.crg-bin/format.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2021/1746.html&query=(4198/2019. This sets out the information as at 2019 as provided by the Ministry of Justice.

Note 4: See the submission to Parliament’s Women’s Equality Committee about Swedish research into offending patterns in transgender women prisoners who have surgically transitioned — https://committtees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/18973/pdf/

Note 5: See IICSA reports — Reports & recommendations | IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Grammar and grievance

A tweet from Legal Feminist disagreeing with Acas advice on pronouns provoked a storm…

[image: taken from the illustrations to the Screwtape Letters]

In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face…  You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (in which an experienced Devil coaches his nephew in the art and science of temptation)

The other day, Acas tweeted out the suggestion that putting pronouns in email signatures could help create a more open and inclusive workplace. Legal Feminist disagreed: 

There followed a storm of engagement, unprecedented for the Legal Feminst account: over 600k impressions, over 500 quote tweets and nearly as many retweets. I think the quote tweets in particular are revealing, and they are the main subject of this blog.

But before I get to that, I want to explain the context a bit; this will be old hat for many of my readers. 

The gender war: a quick primer

There are two sides in this war. They call each other various names, but we can call them sex deniers and gender criticals.

Sex denialism claims that sex doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a man or a woman depends not on your body, but on your inner sense of identity. A male person who says that he is a woman should be treated, referred to – and even thought of – as a woman for all purposes; and vice versa. Various things follow. If a man wants to join a support group for female survivors of male sexual violence, then provided only he says he’s a woman, he must be welcomed in. If a man with fully intact male genitalia wants to undress in the women’s changing area at the swimming pool, anyone who objects is a pearl-clutching prude and a bigot. If a mediocre male athlete wants to compete in women’s events and start breaking records and winning medals, the women should move over. If a male doctor wants to identify as a woman, his true sex is none of his patients’ business – even where intimate examinations are concerned. If a rapist decides he’s a woman and wants to be moved to a women’s prison, that’s his right too.  

Gender criticals think biological sex does sometimes matter: for healthcare, for safeguarding, for everyday privacy and dignity, for fairness in sport, and so on. They think sex is determined by whether you have a male or a female body, and that it’s no more possible literally to change sex than to change species. 

The attentive reader will have noticed that the “gender critical” viewpoint is made up of commonsense propositions that until about ten minutes ago no sensible person – whether on the political left or right – would have dreamed of contesting. The sex denialist beliefs are novel, and surprising.

Pronouns

So where do pronouns come in? 

This takes us to the manner in which sex denialism has been promoted. You can’t defend irrational beliefs with reason. By and large sex deniers don’t try: instead, their strategy has been to attempt to leapfrog over the usual campaigning, lobbying, arguing, persuading phases of bringing about profound cultural and legal  change, and to pretend instead that the desired outcome is already accepted by all right-thinking people – and to silence dissent by visiting dire consequences on anyone who questions that claim. That, I believe, is the whole reason for the vitriol and toxicity that surrounds this subject. Anyone who points out the absurdity of propositions like “some women have penises” must be howled down as a bigot, shamed, no-platformed, hounded from her job, kicked off her course, etc. That way, any doubter who lacks an appetite for martyrdom will be persuaded to steer clear of the whole debate – and insist if pressed that this subject is all too complicated and toxic, and they simply haven’t found the time or head-space to form a view. 

The more insidious part of the strategy is the first part: the pretence that the contentious  propositions that form sex denialism are already accepted without question by all educated, right-thinking people. Sex deniers make determined efforts to weave their claims seamlessly into our language and the fabric of our workplace culture, with the aim of converting contentious claims into the kind of tacit knowledge that doesn’t even need to be stated or formulated. 

Acas’s advice 

So what does Acas mean when it says announcing your pronouns can help create a more “open and inclusive” workplace? Inclusive for whom, and how? Your colleagues and work contacts will mostly know whether you’re male or female, if they need to. If you have an androgynous name and you particularly want to announce your sex, adding a title after your name will clear up any ambiguity with much less accompanying baggage than pronouns. But why do we even need to do this? Those who reply to my emails don’t need to know whether I am female or male. The truth behind pronouns is that their “baggage” is the point. The mechanism by which pronouns are supposed to make the workplace more open and inclusive is that they demonstrate your support of sex denialism, but without requiring you to say anything explicit. They bolster and entrench the idea that gender identity is more important than sex, while maintaining the appearance of a trivial, harmless courtesy. 

That’s why I think our tweet was right. Sex denialism is far from universal: on the contrary, they are bitterly contentious. By putting pronouns in your signature you raise a flag that aligns you publicly with one side – and against the other – of the gender war. If you’re a Catholic pupil at a school in Glasgow where “No Pope!” is the standard greeting (I am not making this up – I have it on reliable authority that it is an example drawn straight from life), you’re put to an invidious choice: either play along – or out yourself as a Catholic or Catholic-sympathiser. No doubt the greeting makes the environment feel welcoming and inclusive for the children of Rangers supporters; less so for young Celtic fans. 

Given the bitterness of the dispute – and especially given the many occasions on which gender critical individuals have had their jobs,  their livelihoods or even their physical safety threatened – being put to the parallel choice by pronoun rituals is not going to make the workplace feel open and inclusive for gender-critical employees.

An accidental behavioural experiment 

Are you feeling sceptical? Thinking maybe I’m overreacting, over-interpreting a harmless bit of politeness? I sympathise. When I first came to these debates, that’s what I thought, too. Why’s everyone getting so het up about language? Can’t we just be polite? 

If that’s where you are – re-read the short  extract from The Screwtape Letters at the top of this blog, and consider the manner in which the original tweet has operated as an accidental behavioural experiment. 

On the face of it, it’s quite a dryly techie tweet from a legal account, disagreeing with a bit of HR advice from Acas. But it’s had an extraordinary level of engagement: at the time of writing, nearly 700k impressions, hundreds of retweets and quote tweets, and nearly 3,000 likes.  

So what’s going on? Why has it attracted so much attention? 

I think the clue is in the quote tweets. They’re almost all hostile. Most fall into one of two categories: either words to the effect “What’s your problem with this trivial courtesy? Get a life!” or else “Ha ha nasty TERF bigots deserve to feel excluded and fearful.” I’ve done a rough-and-ready analysis, sorting about the hundred or so of these quote tweets into categories. I counted 66 that fell into the “ha ha nasty terven” category, 26 into the “harmless courtesy” camp –  plus two that agreed with the original tweet and a few I couldn’t easily classify. 

The typical HR response to any push-back against pronoun rituals is of the “harmless courtesy” flavour. Why, they ask, are you making such a big deal of this little thing? Why can’t you just be kind and polite like everyone else? Or at least not make an ungracious fuss if your colleagues want to be kind and polite! If you argue that pronoun rituals are an attempt to make a particular highly contentious belief system seem so mainstream that it can be treated as the default – and shame anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it – you’ll be met with polite bafflement. “What makes you think it’s that? It’s just a trivial courtesy that will make a marginalised group feel more comfortable. How much can it possibly cost you?”

This type of response was well represented in the sample I looked at. Here’s a typical one:

This is a perfectly understandable take from decent, well-intentioned people who haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought. But it’s hard to sustain in the teeth of the evidence provided by the other, much larger category of quote tweet. There are more than twice as many of these as from team “harmless courtesy”, and they make my case for me vividly – sometimes in unmistakably menacing terms. Here’s a small sample of that type: 

This was a reply, not a quote tweet

The first of these is admirably clear: “MAKE THE BIGOTS STFU [for the pure in heart, that translates “shut the fuck up”]. THAT’S THE BLOODY POINT.” 

This is the heart of the matter. A handful of responses of this type might have been explained away as the bad behaviour of a few hotheads. But the numbers involved make that impossible to sustain. 

A clear majority of the hundreds who have engaged with this tweet by quote-tweeting it are saying in terms that the point of including pronouns in email signatures is to make “TERFs” feel excluded and fearful. 

The quote tweets have vividly dramatised both aspects of the technique recommended by Uncle Screwtape in the extract at the start of this blog: one group (Zoë Irene et al) boasting that they are indeed saying something with the express purpose of giving offence – while the other group takes on the role of maintaining a sense of grievance when offence is taken. 

Expressing loathing and contempt for those who hold gender-critical views may be fashionable; it even seemed to have a degree of judicial sanction until the first instance decision in Forstater was corrected on appeal. But the lesson from the judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Forstater needs to sink in. Gender-critical beliefs are within the protected characteristic of “religion or belief” (so too, probably, is sex denialism); harassing or discriminating against your employees on grounds of their protected beliefs can prove expensive. One of the things to be taken into account by a court or tribunal in determining for the purposes of a claim under the Equality Act whether conduct has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them is whether it’s reasonable for it to have that effect. The fate of this tweet could itself provide telling evidence. 

Single Sex Services: 10 Reasons why the Statutory Code should now be updated

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has released new guidance for single sex services regarding how lawfully to treat people of the opposite sex who have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. The EHRC is mandated by the Equality Act 2010 to write guidance to help organisations understand how to apply the Act correctly.

Legal Feminist welcomes this guidance as there are problems with the EHRC’s 2011 Statutory Code (the Code). Other legal commentators, by contrast, say the new guidance is out of step with the Code. This article will set out why we consider the new guidance to be correct and why the Code needs to be updated.

In terms of accessing single sex services, we consider it fundamental that every service-user should know, at the point of access, and preferably beforehand, if spaces and services are single-sex or mixed-sex.

  • If a service provider allows people of both sexes to use a service together, it is not providing a single-sex or separate-sex service.
  • A GRC may change an individual’s state-recognised sex, but if a service-provider allows him or her to use a single-sex or separate-sex service for the opposite sex then it becomes a mixed-sex service. 

The Equality Act allows exceptions from its prohibitions of discrimination

The Act sets out exceptions where it is not unlawful to treat people of different protected characteristics differently because of those characteristics. We see this with age, where entry to certain services is restricted to particular age groups and also with sex. In both cases, the exceptions apply so long as the restriction is objectively justified as a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Single-Sex Service Exceptions

There are three types of exception in the Equality Act (EA) which allow a service provider to provide a single-sex service. The first two apply to exclude men from women’s services and vice versa. The last allows the service-provider to continue to provide the same single-sex service despite gender reassignment. When an opposite-sex person has a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), the exclusion cannot operate on the basis of sex but instead on gender reassignment. The reason for this is that a GRC means that the differenting factor can no longer be sex (because legally the opposite-sex person is now considered the same sex). In all exceptions the decision to be single-sex must be objectively justified.

The 2011 EHRC Code provides nine positive examples of how service providers might successfully invoke the first two exceptions in order to ensure a single sex service. The examples demonstrate: 

  • Unconditional recognition of sexed needs, 
  • Consideration for effective and practicable service provision,
  • Consideration of intersectional protected characteristics  
  • Acceptance of intimate sexed needs in special care, supervision or attention,
  • Acceptance of female objections to male presence and contact


None of the examples require service users to justify their sexed needs or objections to the opposite sex’s presence or contact. There is no assumption that women are bigoted for their needs or objections.

Maintaining single-sex services regardless of GRC

Once a person has a GRC, the state recognises a change of legal sex status. A service provider therefore needs to apply the gender reassignment exceptions (set out in Schedule 3, part 7, para. 28 EA) in order to provide a single-sex service. These allow separate-sex services and single-sex services where objectively justified in relation to  gender reassignment. This last exception (relating to gender reassignment)  is badly handled by the Code. 

The standard of objective justification required for excluding male people with GRCs from female spaces should not be any different from those requiring exclusion of men from female spaces. The wording of the exceptions is replicated, so the exceptions should be subjected to the same test of objective justification.

The 2011 Code ought to provide user-friendly guidance to putting the Equality Act into practice but, in our view, it does not do this and makes ten errors, these are:

  1. Failure to Distinguish GRC Holders 

It fails to make a distinction between people who have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment but no GRC and those who have both. This is important because it determines whether the single sex exceptions apply on the basis of sex or gender reassignment. Remember the sex based exceptions are well explained with positive examples of how they work by the 2011 Code whereas the gender reassignment based exceptions are inadequately explained.

2. Departs from the Equality Act Explanatory Notes

The 2011 Code provides one example of a service provider’s supposed failure to use correctly the exception in relation to gender reassignment and no examples at all of proper uses of the exception. This is in striking contrast to the guidance for the other exceptions, which set out nine positive examples of situations where it will be lawful to use them.

This also contrasts with the approach in the Explanatory Notes to the EA, which give the example of a group counselling session provided to female victims of sexual assault, in which it would be permissible for organisers to prohibit a male to female transsexual person from attending as they judge that female clients may not attend. The 2011 Code adopts other examples of lawful discrimination in the Explanatory notes where they relate to sex based exceptions , but fails to use this one in relation to gender reassignment. 

3.         Impractical 

The Code states that the Paragraph 28 exception should only be used in exceptional circumstances, without describing such circumstances. This creates a higher bar than for the previous two exceptions, which relate to ordinary run-of-the-mill scenarios. There is no requirement in the statute for this exception to be treated differently from the others.

4.         Unworkable

It sets out that this exception should be applied on a “case by case” basis but does not give an example of any policy that is capable of being applied in such a way. There is nothing in the EA2010 that requires this application, in fact the case of Homer v West Yorkshire Police regarding objective justification warns against an ad hominem approach as potentially discriminatory (para 25).  

Case by case can only be workable if “case by case” relates to the particular services provided rather than the service users. as acknowledged by the Women and Equalities Select Committee.. Naomi Cunningham has already written for Legal Feminist on this  topic.

5.         Refers to out-dated case law

The Code regresses to the pre GRA 2004 position as per the A v West Yorkshire case, which we consider to rely upon the sexist criteria of being considered adequately feminine or masculine in presentation to “pass”. Relying upon unlawful sex discrimination will in turn render a single sex policy unlawful.

6.         Unrealistic

Many people detect biological sex even in those who try hard to pass.

It is impossible to base a functional policy on subjective perceptions of sex, or on someone being “indistinguishable” – and most transgender people are not. Many other service users will accurately perceive their biological sex and feel that the service provider is mistreating them in pretending to operate a single-sex service.

GRCs were intended to ensure that transsexual people who were undetectable as the opposite sex could keep their actual sex a secret. They were never intended to make others pretend that they do not perceive sex.

7.         Removes Consent

Women accessing a single-sex service are not consenting to share it with the opposite sex. Labelling a changing room “women only” but admitting any male person whom the service provider deems to “pass” is tantamount to using deception to obtain the consent of the women who use that facility. It is unacceptable that some women – in particular traumatised women and some religious women – will self-exclude from such facilities. 

8.         Encourages harassment

The EHRC Code suggests that service-users’ perceptions of sex may be bigoted. (Para 13.60 of the EHRC statutory code states that “Care should be taken in each case to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice.”) 

This seems to have encouraged service providers such as the Government Legal Service to create a policy that employees who state that they want single-sex facilities should be investigated and potentially disciplined for requesting them. This goes far beyond the requirement for objective justification in the EA and becomes harassment of employees seeking to assert their own sex-based rights.

9.         Lacks of consideration of dignity, privacy and previous trauma

Providing cubicles within a mixed sex-changing room does not address everyone’s needs. Many people still want to know whether the room in which the cubicles are situated is single-sex or mixed-sex. Knowing that there is a man in the next cubicle will make many women and girls uncomfortable enough to self-exclude. It may re-traumatise those who have previous experience of sexual abuse and it may mean that women from certain cultural and religious backgrounds do not feel able – or even are not allowed by their families – to use the services.

10.      Lacks consideration of Violence against Women and Girls

The vast majority of violence committed against women and girls is on the basis of sex by male perpetrators. Abuse ranges from the physical to the psychological and includes the use of smart-phones and other technology to take photographs and films of women and girls. The 2011 Code does not acknowledge these abuses and was written before recording devices were so widely available. Nor does the Code acknowledge that there is no evidence basis to show that people will behave any differently from others  of their natal sex category in this regard.

But Is It Cricket? Giving Women A Sporting Chance

Lia Thomas, a swimmer, born male, is now routinely winning women’s swimming races in the United States. Soon we are bound to see a similar situation in the UK. Do the female athletes who lose team medals and opportunities in these situations have any legal recourse?

I think they may have. I’m going to consider a hypothetical. 

 I am consulted by Jane, a top female sports woman. She is third best in the country in her sport, which combines speed, strength and skill. Normally this means she makes the big competitions for her home nation, England as there are three places in the team. This year the rules were changed to allow trans women to compete in the women’s competition if they met a requirement to lower testosterone to a certain level for one year. As a result, May, a trans woman, is eligible for a place on the women’s team in Jane’s sport. May matured through male puberty before transition, and was an elite male athlete in the same sport as Jane, and under the new rules is certain to make the top 3.   Jane, as the fourth-placed athlete in this event, will miss out on competing for her country. She feels the rules to be unfair and she will lose out financially and in sporting terms.

I am not in this piece going to discuss the merits of Jane’s view, but how a claim under the Equality Act would be framed. 

I will assume the identity of the organisation she will challenge is clear and her claim is in time. I will also assume the organisation is not a public body so PSED not engaged, but the competition organiser is a provider of services to the public, so Jane can bring her claim in the County Court in England and Wales or the Sheriff Court in Scotland under part 3 of the Equality Act. 

So, with any claim where the problem is a rule (or rule change), the most obvious starting point is indirect discrimination, under s19 Equality Act.

19 Indirect discrimination

(1)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.

(2)For the purposes of subsection (1), a provision, criterion or practice is discriminatory in relation to a relevant protected characteristic of B’s if—

(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 this case we have a “provision, criterion or practice” of allowing not just biological females into the sport but also MTF trans identifying people who meet certain criteria relating solely to testosterone levels.

The rule applies to all competitors, whatever their protected characteristics. It will be indirectly discriminatory on grounds of sex if it puts the women to whom it is applied at a particular disadvantage compared to the men to whom it is applied; and puts Jane at that disadvantage; and the competition organiser can’t show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. 

Does it put Jane, as a biological women, at a particular comparative disadvantage?  It doesn’t have to be all or even most women. I suspect she would point to evidence that she, as with the average biological woman, is likely to have smaller heart, lung capacity, shorter limbs, difference in pelvis, etc than a comparable trans woman who had gone through male puberty. It can even affect only a few women, as long as there is  a causal link to the protected characteristic (this is known as small group disadvantage).

Jane’s argument would presumably be that the difference in performance is so great between the average elite athlete female and the average elite athlete male who has gone through male puberty (even those whose testosterone is lowered) that it makes the rule inherently discriminatory.

So her argument is she is put at that disadvantage.

So then the onus is on the organisation who made or apply the rule to show it is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Obviously a court would consider all the technical, sociological, scientific evidence for and against such a rule.

Now this is where s 195 of the Equality Act comes in.

In discrimination law, the starting point for any rule generally is no discrimination at all. So one category open for all. However, that would be wholly unworkable. It would mean no Paralympics, no women’s sport or no age-restricted events. So Equality law recognises that it is legitimate to impose some categories to allow groups who would always lose if young, non disabled men could always compete, to limit their events to people of a particular protected class.

S195 Equality Act identifies how one set of categories, relating to sex is permissable:

195 Sport

(1)A person does not contravene this Act, so far as relating to sex, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of another as a competitor in a gender-affected activity.

(2)A person does not contravene section 29, 33, 34 or 35, so far as relating to gender reassignment, only by doing anything in relation to the participation of a transsexual person as a competitor in a gender-affected activity if it is necessary to do so to secure in relation to the activity—

(a)fair competition, or

(b)the safety of competitors.

(3)A gender-affected activity is a sport, game or other activity of a competitive nature in circumstances in which the physical strength, stamina or physique of average persons of one sex would put them at a disadvantage compared to average persons of the other sex as competitors in events involving the activity.

Ignore the reference to gender, technically they mean sex.

Whilst this, on the face of it look permissive, when considered within the context of an indirect sex discrimination claim, it could be a part of the duty not to indirectly discriminate against biological women.  It relates to the issue of whether the rule is determined as “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. The onus is on the sports body to show that it is.

The fact that s195 is written into the Equality Act is a strong indication by Parliament that use of such an exception is not only okay but could be necessary to achieve fair competition. Consideration of why the sports organisation did or didn’t use the exception(by reference to strong evidence from consultation, research and analysis from all potentially affected people) will be key.

I cannot predict how any particular claim might be resolved (though studying the recent World Rugby process  here for determining categories is instructive). But given that women’s sport has for the first time started to be commercially important, it is very likely that a claim for indirect sex discrimination will be made soon.

Admission to women-only spaces, and “case by case” assessment

The current EHRC Code of Practice on ‘Services, public functions and associations’ says that whether or not any given trans-identifying man should be admitted to a women-only space is something that should be decided on a “case-by-case” basis, and it has been argued in court that this is what the law requires. It sounds quite reasonable, in the abstract: people should make nuanced decisions tailored to the individual circumstances, rather than blindly following blanket rules. What’s not to like about that?

The Equality Act 2010 isn’t as clear as it might be on this question – and as a result, the forthcoming EHRC guidance is eagerly anticipated. While we wait for that, I want to walk through how “case by case” might work in practice. I’ll take one everyday example, a gym. 

I want to think about Louise. Louise is a 25-year-old gym employee, sometimes running fitness classes and sometimes doing a stint on reception. She has an industry-recognised Level 3 qualification in Personal Training. She’s a keen competitive windsurfer, and she plays for a local women’s rugby team. 

One day Jill, a trans-identifying male arrives at the gym to take out membership. Jill is wearing make-up and women’s clothes, but has a deep voice and a hint of stubble, and is obviously male. After completing membership formalities, Jill says “You may be able to tell I’m trans. I assume there’s no objection if I use the women’s changing room?” The women’s changing room has a main space with pegs along the walls, communal showers, and a wall of lockers; and a few curtained cubicles for women who want more privacy. Most users change in the main space. 

What’s Louise to do? What are the criteria on which she should decide whether Jill should be allowed to use the women’s changing room? Should she ask whether Jill has a GRC? Or what treatment Jill has had – hormone treatment, or surgery? Or should she treat that as intensely personal information that she can’t possibly ask about? But if so – how else is she to decide? Is she supposed to make an assessment of how successfully Jill “passes” as a woman? Or perhaps how much effort Jill has made to “pass”? Is she supposed to try to guess how likely it is that other users of the changing room will realise that Jill is male? Is her decision just about Jill, or should she also take into account considerations about the demographics of the gym’s membership – how many of the gym’s female users are middle-aged, or members of religious faiths in which modesty is particularly important? Is she supposed to be able to make this assessment on the fly, or should she ask Jill to come back another day after she’s had a chance to consider all the relevant circumstances and ask for any evidence and conduct any follow-up investigations she thinks necessary? And once Louise has made her assessment, are all the other receptionists supposed to abide by it – or do they have to do their own assessment each time Jill visits the gym? Is the “case” in question Jill, or this particular visit by Jill on this particular occasion?

Suppose Louise agrees that it’s ok for Jill to use the women’s changing room. Suppose Richard, who’s been a member of the gym for some years, overhears the exchange and says “Oh! I didn’t know that was allowed. I’m a woman too, actually, so I assume it’s also ok for me to use the women’s changing room?” Richard is dressed – as usual – in male business attire; he pops into the gym in his lunch-hour from the bank over the road where he works. 

Now what? If Louise says yes to Jill but no to Richard, why’s that? Is it because she knows Richard, and has always known him as a man? Is it because Richard is dressed as a man, and is making no effort at all to “pass” as a woman? Should her decision be different if Richard confides in her that he has already transitioned in his home life, and his real name is Madeleine, but he’s still trying to get up his nerve to transition at work; but because he is really a woman – even though presenting as male for work purposes – he should be allowed to use the women’s facilities? Or suppose Richard says he’s genderfluid, and sometimes comes to work in “girl mode” – and asks if it’s ok for him to use the women’s changing rooms on those days? 

It’s obvious – surely – that it’s not fair to put Louise in this position. She can’t be expected to make a “case by case” assessment. That conclusion doesn’t depend on any particular assumptions about her level of education: it’s  no different if she’s working part-time in the gym while she completes her PhD in gender studies. 

So now suppose you’re the gym owner – or if the gym’s part of a big chain, the chain’s general counsel. Louise is still at the sharp end of this: you’ve got to decide how to help her out. What policy are you going to tell her to follow? Are you going to take the decision out of her hands and give it to someone more senior? You could ask trans customers to fill in a form explaining their particular circumstances, and making a case for why they should be allowed to use the facilities provided for the opposite sex. You could ask them to provide evidence; maybe a copy of their GRC; a GP report; testimonials from friends or relatives. And then a manager could make the “case by case” decision on the basis of that information. 

Good luck with that. Your trans customers will complain – with some justice – that the process is slow, humiliating and intrusive. They may object to being asked to produce documentation that other customers don’t have to produce – they may say you have no right even to ask whether they have a GRC. You don’t ask your other customers to fill in a lot of paperwork to explain why they should be allowed to use the facilities they want to use. 

It’s not going to work, is it? Once you go to the trouble of imagining the practicalities on the ground of a “case by case” approach, you can see what an impossible thicket of difficulty it presents.

You can run a parallel thought experiment with any other single-sex space you care to think of: the practicalities of attempting a “case by case” assessment don’t get any easier. In some cases they get harder.  If it’s admission to a women’s refuge in the middle of the night, then necessarily the decision is urgent and has to be made in a hurry – and the consequences for other traumatised users of the service are more serious if you get it wrong. In a gym, some of your female users may simply self-exclude if you let males use the female changing rooms. That’s bad enough – a service they value and that is good for them is effectively put out of their reach. But female inmates in prison don’t have the luxury of being able to vote with their feet: if your case by case assessment admits a trans-identifying male, you may be exposing them to chronic fear for the duration of their sentence. If it’s the ladies’ toilets at the nightclub, there isn’t even any plausible moment in the “customer journey” at which a case by case assessment might be made. 

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution. What you need at your gym is women’s facilities, for women only, with no exceptions; men’s facilities, for men only, with no exceptions; and a sufficient number of single-user changing rooms for anyone who for whatever reason – and no-one need inquire what that reason is – isn’t comfortable using the facilities provided for their sex. That way no-one is excluded, no-one is asked intrusive questions – but also, no naked or half-dressed woman will be surprised by the unwelcome presence of a man. Everyone can get changed in peace. 

Note: not all the LFs are comfortable with the use of male pronouns for even a hypothetical a trans-identifying male. But they haven’t censored this blog, because we don’t all agree on everything, and we value dissent.

If I were Ruler of the World….(part 1)

On twitter, after a period of great exasperation I wrote a thread that started: “I am coming to the view that, if or when I am ruler of the world, anyone who wants to speak about UK Equality[1] law matters on social media has to first sit an exam which I will set.”

I then set out a list of six questions to be answered, in this mythical situation.  Then I promised to provide suggested answers, so here goes with answers 1 and 2 (I will answer the others in later blogs):

1.  What are the nine protected characteristics?

In the Equality Act 2010, nine characteristics were identified as ‘protected characteristics’. These are the characteristics where evidence shows there is still significant discrimination in employment, provision of goods and services and access to services such as education and health. They are:

age;

disability;

gender reassignment;

marriage and civil partnership;

pregnancy and maternity;

race;

religion or belief;

sex;

sexual orientation.

They are then defined in ss5-12 and 17 and 18 of the Act.

It was pointed out by my good friend, lawyer Jo Chimes that, as I mentioned UK, there is a 10th in Northern Ireland, namely political opinion (see The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998).

So, if you want to bring a claim under the Equality Act you have to show how the conduct complained was linked to one of the protected characteristics; and how you are protected by the Act.

2What are comparators and why are they important?

If you want to show you’ve suffered unlawful discrimination or bring an equal pay claim, you need to compare your treatment with the treatment of someone else who doesn’t have the same protected characteristic as you. The Equality Act calls this person a “comparator”.

So, a women arguing she was overlooked for a payrise because of sex discrimination would need a man as a comparator. If arguing it was because of her race, it would need to be someone not of her race and so on. You cannot use someone who shares your protected characteristic as a comparator.

In direct discrimination claims (s13), you have to show evidence of less favourable treatment (because of a protected characteristic) than a valid comparator. The comparator can be a real person, similar in all material circumstances but who doesn’t share your PC, or a hypothetical comparator (a thought experiment based on what it is likely to have happened in the same situation if there was a real comparator). Lawyers in these cases can spend considerable time arguing about what is a valid hypothetical comparator for the particular circumstances.

In Chapter 3 of the Act, equal pay claims require a real comparator; so a hypothetical comparator is not allowed. There is some concern that if gender (actually sex) self ID is introduced, this could defeat an otherwise valid, individual equal pay claim.

In indirect discrimination claims (s19 ) and duty to do reasonable adjustments (s20), comparators are also required but in a way too complex for this introductory exam.

So, those are my suggested answers. Will post parts two and three, when I get some time.


[1] [1] Ive correct my spelling mistake from the original

The new interim version of the Equal Treatment Bench Book:

A significant step forward in its guidance on ‘Trans People’, but a long way still to go

A Guest Blog By Maureen OHara. She is a legal academic and former solicitor, who is doing research into the impact on women’s rights of the adoption of gender identity theory by criminal justice agencies

In December 2021 a new interim version of the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB) was published. Its guidance on ‘Trans People’ in chapter 12 includes significant amendments which take account of some of the criticisms of earlier versions made by gender critical feminists and lawyers.

These criticisms relate to broadly four areas, which are compulsion in relation to the use of the preferred pronouns and modes of address of trans-identifying parties to court proceedings; the adoption of tenets of gender identity theory as if they were fact; the implementation of self- definition of ‘gender identity’ in court proceedings; and the lack of transparency about who contributes to the ETBB’s content. Some of these criticisms have been partially addressed in the new version of the ETBB, while others have not.

In August 2021 a group of practising lawyers and legal academics wrote to the Lord Chief Justice expressing concerns about the previous ETBB guidance. The Lord Chief Justice passed our letter to the ETBB’s Editorial Panel for consideration. The text of the letter set out below. Some signatories’ names have been removed because they did not want them made public.

The revised version of the ETBB has taken on board some of the concerns the letter raised, particularly in relation to the treatment of witnesses giving evidence about their experiences of sexual and domestic violence.

In relation to the use of preferred pronouns, the previous version of the ETBB, published in February 2021, stated:

‘‘It is important to respect a person’s gender identity by using appropriate terms of address, names and pronouns. Everyone is entitled to respect for their gender identity, private life and personal dignity.’’ (p. 325)

Neither the February 2021 version of the ETBB nor previous versions which included this requirement, provided any guidance about how it should be implemented in practice in relation to witnesses other than those who identify as transgender, or about how judges should treat witnesses who perceive defendants in terms of their sex rather than their ‘gender identity’.

Some judges interpreted the guidance as requiring them to compel witnesses to use the preferred pronouns of defendants and other parties to proceedings who identify as transgender. This had particularly serious implications for witnesses who were giving evidence about traumatic events, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence. Previous versions of ETBB did not address the impact on these witnesses of being required to describe a defendant in criminal proceedings, or an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse in family proceedings, in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality. The potential impact of the earlier guidance on complainants in criminal trials is discussed in this journal article which I wrote in 2019.

This account of being instructed by a judge to use a defendant’s preferred pronouns was given by Maria MacLachlan, who was assaulted in 2017. One of her attackers, Tara Wolf, who self-defined as a ‘trans woman’, was convicted of assault by beating in April 2018.

The revised ETBB recognises for the first time that witnesses have a right to refer to trans-identifying people using pronouns which align with their biological sex, and acknowledges that there may be circumstances where this is required by the interests of justice.

Paragraph 26 of chapter 12 states,

“There may be situations where the rights of a witness to refer to a trans person by pronouns matching their gender assigned at birth, or to otherwise reveal a person’s trans status, clash with the trans person’s right to privacy. It is important to identify such potential difficulties in advance, preferably at a case management [1] stage, but otherwise at the outset of the hearing. A decision would then have to be made regarding how to proceed, bearing in mind factors such as:

…Why the witness is unwilling or unable to give evidence in a way which maintains the trans person’s privacy. For example, a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence at the hands of a trans person may understandably describe the alleged perpetrator and use pronouns consistent with their gender assigned at birth because that is in accordance with the victim’s experience and perception of the events. Artificial steps such as requiring a victim to modify his/her language to disguise this risks interfering with his/her ability to give evidence of a traumatic event.”

There will be occasions when, after these and other relevant factors have been considered, the interests of justice require that a witness or party may refer to the trans person using their former pronouns or name.”

The guidance then cites the provisions relating to special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses contained in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Previous versions of chapter 12 of the ETBB have not mentioned provisions relating to these groups of witnesses.

This amendment should mean that complainants giving evidence in trials for rape or other sexual offences will not be required to call male defendants ‘she’, and that women giving evidence in family proceedings about their experiences of domestic abuse will not be required to refer to their former male partners as though they were women.

The use of the language of rights in the amendment is significant. While this is an important step forward, many of the problems raised by the ETBB’s general guidance about the use of preferred pronouns are still not addressed in the new version. In practice witnesses’ ability to exercise their right to use pronouns which align with the sex of trans-identified parties to proceedings will be limited by the fact that the ETBB is likely to be interpreted to mean that the judge, the lawyers representing all parties in the proceedings, and perhaps other witnesses, should use preferred pronouns based on self-defined ’gender identity’. The ETBB does not discuss the implications for a witness of calling a trans-identified male ‘he’ while everyone else who speaks in the court room calls that person ‘she’. Where this happens it is likely to confuse and unnerve the witness, who may feel pressurised to use preferred pronouns themselves. This experience is likely to be particularly confusing and distressing for child witnesses and witnesses with learning disabilities.

In criminal proceedings this problem is likely to be compounded in cases where witnesses have already experienced the local police service and the Crown Prosecution Service referring to trans- identified defendants according to their ‘gender identity’ rather than their sex. Research carried out in 2019 by Fair Play for Women found that sixteen police services in England and Wales recorded the sex of suspects and offenders based on self-defined gender. Eight services confirmed in answer to a specific question relating to the offence of rape that they would record the sex of a rape suspect who identifies as transgender as female. In October 2021 it was reported that the Home Secretary intended to end these practices. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. The Crown Prosecution Service also operates a policy of recording the self-defined ‘gender’ of defendants.

In most respects the ETBB guidance makes no distinctions between people who identify as transgender who have obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate which changes their ‘gender’ in law, and those who have not. It has effectively introduced self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings, despite the fact that self-definition is not aligned with current law. This has not changed in the new guidance.

Another criticism of the previous ETBB was that it was partisan and adopted many of the tenets of gender identity theory as if they were matters of fact rather than opinion. This is discussed in depth in a Policy Exchange publication written in 2021 by Thomas Chacko, who also discusses the approach to self-identification in some detail.

The revised version of the ETBB continues to use language founded in gender identity theory which is widely contested, such as ‘gender assigned at birth’. Arguably, its overall approach remains imbued with gender identity theory, on which the implementation of self-definition of ‘gender identity’ is based.

The revised edition has clearly been influenced by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) judgment in Forstater https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/60c1cce1d3bf7f4bd9814e39/Maya_Forstater_v_CGD_Europe_and_others_UKEAT0105_20_JOJ.pdf v CGD Europe and Ors(2021) in which it was held that gender critical beliefs are protected beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. It is somewhat more even-handed than previous editions, in that it gives a brief explanation of gender-critical beliefs, notes that they are protected, and acknowledges for the first time that there is a debate in this area. However, the ETBB’s framing of the Forstaterjudgment arguably expresses implicit bias.

While it notes that gender critical beliefs are protected, the revised edition does not explicitly state that this is the result of the decision in Forstater, except in its Appendix on the Equality Act. Its only clear reference to the judgment in Forstaterin chapter 12 relates to what the EAT said about ‘misgendering’.

At paragraph 78, the new ETBB states,

“‘Gender-critical’ is a phrase which, broadly speaking, refers to a belief that sex is immutable and binary, and that people cannot transition. Very often it is linked to concerns that allowing the definition of women to include trans women would make the concept of ‘women’ meaningless and undermine protection for vulnerable women and girls. There is also often concern about what is seen as potential encroachment into ‘safe spaces’. Feelings can run very strongly on both sides of this debate. Clearly the ETBB takes no sides on this matter. The ETBB’s concern is simply that judges have some understanding of the perspectives of the variety of litigants and witnesses who appear before them. Gender-critical beliefs (as long as they do not propose for example to destroy the rights of trans people) are protected beliefs even if they might offend or upset trans people (and others). However, holding a belief is different from behaviour. As explained in the well-publicised Forstater case, ‘misgendering’ a trans person on a particular occasion, gratuitously or otherwise, can amount to unlawful harassment in arenas covered by the Equality Act 2010.”

The ETBB omits to note that the EAT reiterated that the position at common law as established in Corbett v Corbett (orse Ashley)[1971] P 83 is that sex is immutable (para.115), and that the Tribunal also stated that,

“…it is relevant to note, and it was not in dispute before us, that the Claimant’s belief is shared by many others.” (para.52)

Forstater is a landmark case in relation to the protection of gender critical beliefs which has significant implications for the treatment of witnesses who are gender critical or who do not share what the EAT in Forstatercalled “gender identity belief” (para.108). Given the significances of this case, a more neutral summary of the EAT’s judgment, and an exploration of its implications in relation to judicial attempts to require witnesses to use the preferred pronouns and modes of address of trans-identified parties in court proceedings, might have been expected.

The ETBB’s introduction of de factoself-definition of ‘gender identity’ happened without public consultation, and the process by which the ETBB guidance is developed is not open to public scrutiny. Melanie Newman reported in the Law Society Gazette in 2020 that the Judicial College had refused to identify the external organisations involved in training and policy formulation in relation to the ETBB. The Judicial College takes the view that it holds information about judicial training on behalf of the judiciary, and therefore this information is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Such lack of transparency creates an environment which is vulnerable to policy capture.

The fact that the Panel has considered our letter to the Lord Chief Justice and taken some of its concerns into account is an encouraging sign of increasing openness to a wider range of opinion. Perhaps there is hope that before the next edition of the guidance the Judicial College will develop a more transparent process for producing it.

Letter to the Lord Chief Justice

The Right Honourable

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Royal Courts of Justice

Strand

London

WC2A 2LL

27th August 2021

Dear Lord Chief Justice,

The Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book

We are a group of practising lawyers and legal academics. We are writing in a personal capacity to express our concerns about the implications for witnesses in both criminal and civil proceedings of the guidance on ‘Trans People’ in chapter 12 of the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book.

Judges are interpreting this guidance as requiring them to compel witnesses to use the preferred pronouns of defendants who identify as transgender. We are particularly concerned about the implications of this guidance for adult and child complainants at criminal trials relating to violent and sexual offence, and for parties in family proceedings who are giving evidence about their experiences of domestic abuse.

The Bench Book states,

‘‘It is important to respect a person’s gender identity by using appropriate terms of address, names and pronouns.’’ (page 325)

No guidance is given about how this requirement should be carried out in practice in relation to witnesses other than those who identify as transgender, or about how judges should treat witnesses who perceive defendants in terms of their sex rather than their ‘‘gender identity’’. The guidance is written as if the use of a defendant’s preferred pronouns is simply a neutral administrative matter which will have no detrimental effects on witnesses, or on court proceedings.

This has particularly serious implications for witnesses who are giving evidence about traumatic events, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence. The Bench Book guidance does not address the impact on these witnesses of being required to describe a defendant in criminal proceedings, or an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse in family proceedings, in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality. This is despite the fact that special measures which recognise the particular difficulties which these witnesses may face in giving evidence at court are provided in section 16 and 17 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 in relation to criminal proceedings, and in sections 63 and 64 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in relation to victims of domestic abuse giving evidence in family and other civil proceedings.

The account below was given by Maria MacLachlan, who was assaulted in 2017. One of her attackers, Tara Wolf, who self-defines as a ‘trans woman’, was convicted of assault by beating in April 2018. MacLachlan has stated:

‘‘My experience of court was much worse than the assault…I was asked ‘‘as a matter of courtesy’’ to refer to my assailant as either ‘‘she’’ or the ‘‘defendant’’. I have never been able to think of any of my assailants as women because, at the time of the assault, they all looked and behaved very much like men and I had no idea any of them identified as women… I tried to refer to him as the ‘‘the defendant’’ but using a noun instead of a pronoun is an unnatural way to speak. It was while I was having to relive the assault and answer questions about it while watching it on video that I skipped back to using ‘‘he’’ and earned a rebuke from the judge. I responded that I thought of the defendant ‘‘who is male, as a male’’. The judge never explained why I was expected to be courteous to the person who had assaulted me or why I wasn’t allowed to narrate what had happened from my own perspective, given that I was under oath.’’ (Julie Moss, ‘Interview: Maria MacLachlan on the GRA and the aftermath of her assault at Speakers’ Corner’, Feminist Current, 21 June 2018, https://www.feministcurrent.com/2018/06/21/interview-maria-maclauchlan-gra-aftermath-assault- speakers-corner/)

The authors of the Bench Bookappear not to have considered the inter-action between its guidance and guidance in Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings(ABE). ABE states that judges have a responsibility to ensure that all witnesses are enabled to give their best evidence, and that that they must strike a balance under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights between protecting the defendant’s right to a fair trial and ensuring that witnesses are enabled to give evidence to the best of their ability. It requires judges to “…have regard to the reasonable interests of witnesses, particularly those who are in court to give distressing evidence, as they are entitled to be protected from avoidable distress in doing so.’’ (p.134)

The logic of the Bench Bookguidance is that a complainant in a rape trial can be required to call a defendant who has raped her (or him) ‘‘she’’, and to use female possessive pronouns to refer to the defendant’s body parts. This could also apply to child witnesses and vulnerable adult witnesses. The guidance does not consider how a child or an adult with learning disabilities might experience an instruction from an authority figure like a judge to refer to a biological male as ‘‘she’’. The right to accurately describe the sex of those who have assaulted them is crucially important to the ability of victims of violent and sexual offences to report violence and give evidence at court. Compelling witnesses to describe a defendant in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality therefore undermines access to justice.

The use of pronouns and forms of address which reflect a person’s ‘gender identity’ rather than their sex is not simply a matter of social courtesy. For many people it is an expression of a political belief with which they profoundly disagree, and which they consider to be harmful to the rights of women, and to society as a whole. The Bench Bookguidance is effectively promoting the imposition of a form of compelled speech, which is an infringement of witnesses’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression, under articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights respectively. Both these articles protect the right not to be obliged to manifest beliefs that one does not hold, as stated in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co[2018] UKSC 49. The right not to be compelled to express a political belief is well established in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The courts have an obligation to balance the rights of defendants and witnesses in criminal trials, and to balance the rights of parties to civil proceedings. However, the Bench Book guidance prioritises the wishes and feelings of those who identify as transgender and includes no guidance for judges about balancing rights. The use of this guidance potentially impedes witnesses’ ability to give accurate and coherent evidence, particularly where giving evidence requires them to recall traumatic events. This cannot reasonably be said to be a proportionate means of achieving the Bench Book’sstated aims, and therefore its interference with witnesses’ Convention rights is not justified.

The Bench Bookguidance appears to be founded on what the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Forstater v CGD Europe and others(UKEAT/0105/20/JOJ) described as ‘gender identity belief’ (paragraph 108). This is the belief that ‘’everyone has a gender identity which may be different to their sex at birth and which effectively trumps sex so that trans men are men and transwomen are women’’ (paragraph 107). The Tribunal found that the Claimant’s lack of ‘gender identity belief’ was protected under Article 9 (1) ECHR and therefore within section 10 Equality Act 2010; as was her ‘gender-critical belief’, the core of which is that sex is biologically immutable (paragraphs 14 and 15). The Tribunal noted that this belief is in accordance with the current law (paragraph 115), and is shared by many people (paragraph 52).

The Bench Bookguidance is not aligned with the Gender Recognition Act’s provisions relating to the recognition of ‘gender identity’. It states that,

“It should be possible to recognise a person’s gender identity…for nearly all court and tribunal purposes regardless of whether they have obtained legal recognition of their gender by way of a Gender Recognition Certificate.’’ (page 326)

This effectively introduces self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings. However, such self-definition has not been incorporated into law in this jurisdiction. Proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act to incorporate self-definition have been the subject of a public consultation, following which the government decided not to introduce these proposals into law. In advising judges to incorporate self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings, the Bench Book effectively advises judges to go beyond the law.

The Bench Book’s approach has been introduced without public consultation, and in the absence of any established public consensus. The Law Society Gazette has reported that, when asked to identify the organisations who assisted in the development of this guidance, the Judicial College stated that it was “not in the public interest to make public the names of those involved in this work.’’ (Melanie Newman, ‘Warning over transgender guidance to judges’, The Law Society Gazette, 24 February 2020, https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/warning-over-transgender-guidance-to- judges/5103196.article).

We find this lack of transparency about the influences on such an important document very concerning, particularly as the document is not aligned with current law.

There appears to be increasing concern about the Bench Book’s guidance in this area outside of the legal profession, such that the think tank Policy Exchange has recently published a document written by barrister Thomas Chacko which suggests the guidance is in need of urgent revision. We attach a copy of this publication.

We ask that a review of this guidance be conducted with a view to amending it to ensure that it reflects the law, and that it takes account of the obligation to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights of all witnesses in court proceedings.

Yours sincerely,

Rosemary Auchmuty, Professor of Law

Sue Bruce, Solicitor

Thomas Chacko, Barrister

Naomi Cunningham, Barrister

Peter Daly, Solicitor

Eileen Fingleton, Solicitor

Francis Hoar, Barrister

Belinda Lester, Solicitor

Audrey Ludwig, Solicitor

Helen Nettleship, Barrister

Maureen O’Hara, Senior Lecturer in Law

Peter Ramsay, Professor of Criminal Law

Angela Smith, Solicitor

Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law


[1]  A case management conference (civil law) or hearing (criminal law) is essentially a meeting which takes place before the main court proceedings between the allocated judge and lawyers for the parties, where decisions are made about various aspects of the conduct of the case. 

Sex Matters in the Board Room – a joint Legal Feminist and Sex Matters briefing

You may recall that Legal Feminist responded to the FCA’s recent consultation on diversity on listed company boards LF FCA consultation. The FCA’s proposals would affect all listed companies, not just those in the financial services sector.

We welcome D&I initiatives and are pleased to suggest an alternative to the FCA’s proposals that is consistent with the current law on every footing – Companies Act, Equality Act, Gender Recognition Act and UK GDPR. It would also result in data being reported on a basis consistent with the ONS and other data reporting initiatives.

Legal Feminist has teamed up with Sex Matters to produce a joint briefing for those new to the topic, explaining the issues with the FCA’s proposals and the advantages of our suggested alternative. Although the consultation has closed, there is still time for those in the corporate and finance sectors to make their views known. If you are in those sectors and/or have contacts who would be affected by the FCA’s proposals, please use the Sex Matters emailer to send the briefing to your contacts either in your own name or via Sex Matters.

See here for the Legal Feminist/Sex Matters briefing.

See here for a link to the Sex Matters blog which explains how you can sign up to help distribute the briefing to those who need to read it.

Thank you!