Conflicts of rights are not uncommon in discrimination and human rights cases. This is a post on how they can arise, and how they are resolved.
There are nine protected characteristics (PCs) in the Equality Act: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation. All of us have at least some of these characteristics, and sometimes those characteristics will give rise to competing claims.
The most common – or at least, the most litigated – of those conflicts of rights has been where sexual orientation meets religion or belief. For example, the case of Lilian Ladele, the registrar whose beliefs meant she was not prepared to preside over civil partnerships, and the Bulls, the Christian owners of the Chymorvah Hotel who would not accommodate a homosexual couple in a double room .
There has been a tendency among some lay commentators to regard the competing rights as a simple contest of morality. Religious beliefs being outmoded and sexual orientation progressive, the reasoning goes, it is proper that the “right side of history” should win.
But this is quite wrong. The resolution of a conflict of rights is not a search for the better, more progressive, or most popular cause. The courts are an arbiter neither of moral certainty nor social progress.
The first question has to be which position each party occupies. As a general rule, the service user can pick and choose their service provider, but the service provider must not discriminate against service users. There is nothing to stop a gay couple opting to shop at the greengrocers owned by another gay couple in preference to that owned by a heterosexual: this is not unlawful discrimination. However, a greengrocers must not refuse to sell vegetables to a gay couple because they are gay.
When it comes to a greengrocers, we are on fairly safe ground. It is extremely difficult to think of a scenario in which a greengrocers might withhold a bag of apples from a customer on the basis of a protected characteristic.
It becomes more complicated when it is the service itself which is in question. This was the subject of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Ashers cake case where Christian owners of a bakery had refused to ice the message “Support Gay Marriage” onto a cake. The Court held that the service was not refused to the claimant because he was gay, but because the bakery would have refused to ice that particular message onto a cake for anybody, regardless of their sexual orientation. The owners also had the right not to be compelled to express a political view with which they disagreed.
Another issue arises where the service provider seeks to restrict a service from one group of people in order to cater to the rights of others. It is permissible to cater a service to a group who share one or more PCs, so a lesbian support group or an over 60s night, for example. Refusing to provide the service to people who do NOT have that PC is permitted by one of the exceptions to the Equality Act – contained at paragraph 30 of Schedule 3 – as long as it is “impracticable” to provide that service to people who don’t share the PC. A lesbian support group is therefore entitled to refuse service to those who are not lesbians. (There are other exceptions, particularly in relation to sex, which will be the subject of a separate post.)
However, what happens when there is a conflict between people who do share a PC? Take a hypothetical example: a lesbian support service includes lesbians who have a religious belief and those who do not. The group may not discriminate by refusing service to those who have a religious belief, but they may refuse service to someone who has persistently evangelised the merits of celibacy for homosexuals, upsetting other members, even though the refusal of service is on the basis of a PC of religion or belief. This is what is meant by a “case by case” basis.
Where a service provider does feel the need to discriminate against a service user on the basis of a PC, the question is then: is it a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim? In the example above, the legitimate aim is the ability of the wider group to continue to access the service, and would be proportionate because it does not involve a blanket ban on all those with a religious belief.
- Rights may conflict. This is not unusual, and it is not an automatic indication of bad faith or bad practice on the part of a service provider;
- Resolution of a conflict of rights is not assessed on who has the ‘better’ or more progressive cause: there is no hierarchy of rights;
- A key question is whether there any discrimination involved is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
 Although these cases pre-date the Equality Act 2010, essentially the same considerations apply, and as Hale LJ noted at §40 in the Bulls’ case, the slightly different formulation of the 2010 Act would not have led to a different result.