Specialist services: permissible discrimination

Twelve years ago, Southall Black Sisters went to court – not, on this occasion to defend a woman from a violent man, but to defend themselves against the loss of funding from Ealing Council.

Ealing had funded SBS since the mid 80s, but in 2007 had decided that domestic violence provision must not be provided to cater to “all individuals irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, age, disability, resident within the Borough of Ealing experiencing domestic violence.” This pushed SBS outside the scope of funding, because they provided assistance only to BME women.

Ealing argued that this specialist service amounted essentially to discriminatory practice by SBS, and that proper equality meant a service which also catered to men and to white service users – notwithstanding that such a service would be inaccessible to the very community who needed SBS’s support. At one stage they even suggested that the name “Southall Black Sisters” was unlawful as it announced its audience in its name.

Perhaps recognising that “what about the men” was an unattractive argument, Ealing caved on the second day of the hearing, accepting that specialist service provision from a specialist source was not only lawful, but necessary. Moses LJ summarised with the judgment with the comment “Specialist services for a racial minority from a specialist source is anti-discriminatory and furthers the objectives of equality and cohesion.”

The same could be said for services provided to any other group, such as women, or gay people, and s.30 Schedule 3 Equality Act 2010 expressly permits a service to be restricted to people who share a protected characteristic.

The judgment is worth reading, and can be found here.

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