A report produced by the Women & Equalities Committee (House of Commons Select Committee) has recommended a change in the approach to enforcing discrimination rights under the Equality Act. At present discrimination rights are normally enforced in the courts by individuals, for example an employee bringing a discrimination claim against their employer in the Employment Tribunal. This approach to enforcement relies on particular individuals initiating the legal challenge, having regard to fears of recrimination, lack of understanding of their legal rights and the stress that comes with bringing such claims.
The report highlights that a key concern with this individual approach is that there is frequently no wider systemic change within an organisation resulting from such claims. The report therefore makes a number of recommendations to shift the focus of enforcement from individuals to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and other enforcement bodies, therefore reducing the need for individuals to take action. One recommendation is that a more robust approach is taken by the EHRC when using its enforcement powers to conduct formal investigations into organisations, to apply to the court for injunctions against certain actions or activities, and to enter into formal, legally binding, agreements in respect of actions taken by organisations.
While individuals must still have the right to challenge discrimination, the system of enforcement by the EHRC and other bodies is designed to ensure that this is rarely needed. Where individual enforcement is taken, the report makes additional recommendations, including the addition of legislation to empower both Employment Tribunals and other courts to make orders that require organisational change.
Whether the recommendations make their way into law remains to be seen. Whilst most organisations do already have in place both the desire and robust processes to address unequal treatment, the shift in focus away from individual enforcement may go some way to help tackle any institutional and systemic discrimination as well as highlighting and addressing discriminating arising from unconscious bias.
If you are an employer and would like assistance with complying with your obligations under the Equality Act, please get in touch.
Full details of the report can be found here